That’s a rather strong statement! Before rushing to judgment about it, based on your assumptions of what it means, take a moment to consider what I am saying and why. What am I not saying by this? This is not an exercise in pointing the finger at “someone” and identifying blame for something. This is not an attempt to “modernize” the church. Nor is it a call to be “relevant in worship” (I have much more to say about this!). Nor is this a call to move away from the solid doctrinal foundation of the Church. Nor is this any kind of “latest organizational technique to make the church more efficient.”
Rather, this assessment of the Church has developed over many years, but has come into sharper focus as I worked through the blog series: 15 Reasons why I came back to the Church; Searching for the Church—Part 1; and Searching for the Church—Part 2. And it is causing me to re-evaluate much of what we say and do in the Church.
The Church is disconnected for several reasons; some related to assumptions about people outside the Church, some related to people inside the Church, some related to language, and some related how we view the transition from evangelism to discipleship. Underneath all of these assumptions is the failure of the Church to see how disconnected it really is.
How bad is the disconnect?
I belong to an era that no longer exists. I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For some that was an exciting time to “throw off the chains of the past.” For others it is seen as the “golden era” of the Church. For me, it was neither. I was not outwardly rebellious even though I was 20 when Woodstock happened. At the same time, as a young child in church, with neither mother nor father present, I went to church with many people “keeping me in line” (including snapping my ears if I happened to turn around to look at people in the church). That was not fun, and certainly not the golden age of the church, for me. Why would I want to restore the Church to that?
So where is the disconnect? Some readers of the previous paragraph are probably wondering, “What is Woodstock?” Notice, even my reference to that event shows a disconnect, and even more a disconnect to all that Woodstock stood for. As the official site declares: “Woodstock is more than a moment of time. It is a way of being in the world.” But note, this disconnect is not because I don’t have those personal memories of Woodstock because I wasn’t there, nor is it a slam against those who don’t know what the event was. Rather, the referent (event) means something to someone my age, but most readers of this blog are not my age, and that event really means nothing to them. And this is a simple example of disconnect.
On a larger scale, the Church has not realized the disconnect across the board over the past 40 years. For many centuries (from the time of Constantine in AD 313 to 1970), the Church of the western world shared a common heritage with society, first in Europe, and then after 1500 in the Americas. That common heritage meant that the collective memories of the Church and of society were essentially the same. Even images, paintings, writings reflected that common heritage.
Assumptions about those outside the Church
Consider the two groups “outside the Church”: 1) those outside the Church in the basically shared heritage of what is called the “western world,” 2) those outside the Church with no societal connections (essentially the entire culture has never had any connection to the Church and the Biblical stories). The second one involves missionary work telling about Jesus in totally new areas. I remember as a young person, this second category was “the mission field,” while the first was “evangelism territory,” as if there were a difference.
As we look at the changing world, perhaps the two are not distinct, and we can and should learn from the second category; no matter where we live, we are involved in missionary work. And that is based on asking the question: Is that common heritage still a valid assumption? I would say it is not valid at all. With the disconnect of the last 40 years, how do we in the Church view those outside the church? My observations over that time indicate that we in the Church continue with the assumptions of previous centuries. We don’t recognize that we no longer live in the “shared heritage” of previous generations.
The unchurched population in the area in which I serve as pastor is 90-95%. When I was growing up, that would have meant that most of them had been in some church for an extended period of time and knew some of the Bible stories, but had drifted away. Today, that is no longer a valid assumption. Many of the unchurched have never read the Bible, never heard about who Jesus was, don’t know how to act in worship (how would they?), etc. This is not a put down, but a realization of the world we live in and the people who live in that world.
Assumptions about those inside the Church
So, we “see the mission field” more clearly. We are all set to move forward, right? Not exactly. The wrong assumptions about those outside the Church are matched by wrong assumptions about those inside the Church. This is perhaps the hardest for pastors and leaders in the Church to face. During the past 40 years of shift we have preached and taught as if everyone in the Church had the shared heritage of Church and society. But they don’t. Consequently we have not helped people grow to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Let’s take a couple quizzes…
How well do people in the church know the Biblical stories? Can they put the following people in correct chronological order (Paul, David, Abraham, Moses, Jesus)? These are not obscure people in the Bible; they are major players. My observation is that many within the Church could not put them in correct order.
How well do people in the Church know the basic Biblical doctrines? What is the phrase that describes the central teaching of the Christian faith? How does the view of original sin relate to Baptism? How do we relate what the Gospels present about who Jesus is and how the letters of Paul present Jesus?
Language — How do we communicate?
In this section I do not want to address the “worship wars” nor the contest between translation techniques of formal equivalence and meaning based translations. Both are important topics, but this question is even larger. How do we communicate with people inside and outside the church, when the basic foundations of faith and basic knowledge of the Biblical story are not present?
For those outside the Church, it means we have to think, speak, and act like missionaries at the edge. We have to speak with people at a level which connects with where they are. Those who are newest to the faith often are the best ones to learn from; they still have connections with the world outside the Church. As they learn the language of faith and worship from the Church, we in the Church can learn from them about speaking with those outside the Church.
Consider just one area: what do we read in worship services? Historically churches use a lectionary system, a series of readings for each Sunday of the year. Typically lectionaries include four readings from these four sections of the Bible: Psalm, Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Over a period of years, a large portion of the Bible is read. The lectionaries focus on “what everyone knows”— and we have to ask, is this helpful in today’s world?
Is this kind of lectionary helpful when those inside and outside the Church have little knowledge of the Bible and doctrine? Let’s take a series of recent consecutive Sunday Old Testament readings in the three year series (approximate years of the events in parentheses):
Isaiah 60:1-6 (~ 700 BC)
Genesis 1:1-5 (yeah, THAT beginning)
1 Samuel 3:1-20 (~1050 BC)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (~790 BC)
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (~1400 BC)
Isaiah 40:21-31 (~650 BC)
What do you notice? Well, there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the selections (there is, but it is not evident when laid out this way). If someone inside the Church has trouble following this, what about someone who is new to the Church? So the question remains: Is the lectionary helping us communicate?
Discipleship…how do we make the connection?
Regardless of church background, we would all essentially agree that the Church is to be involved in discipleship. Given the changed world both within and without the Church, how do we accomplish discipleship?
Or in terms of continuity, how do we move from evangelism/mission to discipleship? Is our process of Catechesis (teaching the faith) based on assumptions about what “everyone should know”? Are we helping people grow in the faith? Or are we not even connecting with them? Or are we confusing them by giving mixed signals about faith and “what is proper”?
Well, after this long post, it seems there are more questions than answers. But I think we have to begin looking at these questions. We have to examine our assumptions about what people “know” relative to what we “think” they know. And we have to rethink discipleship and Church in the broadest terms.
But I am not suggesting discarding everything in the Church. On the contrary, I think we have the answers, tools, and approaches already. But we in the western world have employed them with wrong assumptions. By doing so, we are not really church, then. We have the shell of being the Church, perhaps fighting and defending against something that is not the real challenge. Are we missing the living existence of “growing in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).