We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

People Who Are Not Like Us ("Decline & Renewal" I)

It is becoming increasing clear that renewal is a challenge shared by churches across theological and historical differences.  Earlier this year Jason Locke's Blog, coming out of the Churches of Christ tradition, posted a series of guest editorials on the theme of "Decline & Renewal," which offers an interesting variety of takes on the challenge of church renewal.

The first posting in the series is by Sean Palmer, pastor of the Vine Church, a Churches of Christ congregation in Temple, Texas.  It is entitled, "The View from Sean Palmer."  Palmer speaks as a self-conscious conservative Christian.  At one point in his pastoral career, he served a church in liberal, secular California and discovered that he and the congregation simply did not know how to speak in a meaningful way with people who were not like them.  They felt alienated from the larger culture, and most of them did not even know well people who weren't conservative Christians like them. He says of  the church's secular, liberal neighbors, "We don’t know one another, therefore we cannot speak to one another."  The reason was that conservative Christians consciously lived apart from others and sometimes voiced venomous attitudes about "President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, depraved homosexuals and gay marriage, 'Obamacare,'" and liberals in general.  Palmer concludes,
"Largely, California Christians are a minority population. The majority of people do believe differently from Christians. But the gospel demands more from Christians than winning arguments. I call for winning hearts. Reaching the majority population, even if it disagrees with you, is the only hope for the church. This is not just about church growth, it’s about fulfilling God’s mission...It’s about whether the church will refuse its mission for the sake of other things. It’s about whether the church wants to make a difference or merely make a point."
Three thoughts:  first, progressive Christians for the most part grapple with the same fundamental situation of not knowing how to share our faith with people who are not religious.  We generally have little or no problem in talking about our faith with people of other faiths, but we don't do any better with "nones" than did Palmer's congregation.  For us, however, it is not a matter of antipathy but of shyness and disinclination.  We rightly reject hard-sell evangelism, but we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in our failure to share our faith at all.

Second, it is fascinating to witness one of our conservative brothers struggle toward a more open, caring, and accepting attitude of those who do not share his theology and ideology.  He is reaching out for a less dualistic, more dialogical approach especially to people of no faith, but it is clear that the whole exercise is counter-intuitive for him.  It is a measure of Palmer's faith, however, that he is willing to contemplate new attitudes toward liberals and secularists for the sake of sharing Christ with them.  It is equally fascinating to see how he wrestles with the reality of how different his views are from other conservative Christians.  Non-dualism and dialogue come hard in his theological world, and one can only wonder how many conservatives are willing to embrace the idea of treating liberals and secularists with greater respect and acceptance.

Finally, I'm personally not convinced that the heart of the matter of church decline is that church people don't know how to communicate Christ with others.  In mainline churches, at least, there is something deeper, which is a superficial spirituality that focuses on ecclesial busy work largely to the exclusion of spiritual growth and a deeper fellowship.  My sense is that if congregations can plumb the depths of spiritual growth and renewal, the questions of sharing their faith and growing their churches statistically will become much less immediate.  Amen.