Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dude, Where's My Twentysomething?

One of the more disturbing trends in the American church today is how many young adults disappear from church between graduating from high school and their early thirties. Undoubtedly there are several good ways to analyze and deal with this issue, and I am hoping some of my readers may have some of their own insights. Recently Brian McLaren has taken up the issue and an article of his is previewed in a recent blog post in Out of Ur. More extensively, Paradoxology has interviewed Sara Cunningham, the author of “Dear Church: Letters From A Disillusioned Generation.” Her book is all about the attitudes of twentysomethings and their general sense of disaffection with the church.

Part of what I really appreciated in the interview was the author’s openness to twentysomethings being pushed back on by older generations. At times there is a tendency among youngish authors to imply that their frustrations with “institutional” church are nigh unassailable and are problems their parent’s church cannot answer. Cunningham’s attitude was much more irenic: she clearly and openly states the realities of disillusionment while noting the need to remain an active and maturing part of the church.

A couple of points in the interview were interesting to me. The interviewer, DesertPastor, asked several questions regarding “institutional church.” This exchange was interesting to me:

Q: Local churches are undoubtedly "communities of flawed humans" - as you point out in the book. Does this change when it comes to alternative expressions of "Church"? And if not, what dangers do such alternative communities of faith face?

A: You're opening the door for a crucial point here. Alternative faith communities face the exact same dangers as the traditional church. ANY approach to faith can become institutionalized. For example, if there is even an implied suggestion that "truly authentic churches should meet in homes," we institutionalize house churches. If there is an implied suggestion that "truly relevant pastors should read Relevant Magazine," we institutionalize Relevant.

Now, of course, I don't deny that there are core habits and practices that DO produce spiritual growth. Things like devotion to prayer, worship, study of Scriptures, and community. But when we place rigid expectations that people pray at our 6 a.m. prayer services, that they buy up our recommended worship CDs, that they read our devotional materials, that they attend our Wednesday night services, we may short-circuit their otherwise natural tendency to pursue other experiences that God has customized for their growth.

The church must always--ALWAYS--guard against institutionalization. It takes away from our love of personal transformation; our love of craftsmanship!

On one level, Cunningham hits the nail on the head-there is no avoiding institutionalization. Any expression of Church, alternative or not, will on some level be systematic and deliberate. Though I come from a non-liturgical tradition, we still have our own form of liturgy though we never name it as such.

But on another level I think there is more to be said about institutionalization. Cunningham believes it stifles individual spiritual creativity, but I am not sure she intends that to be applied to every form of institutionalization. Later in the interview, she notes this about liturgical expressions of faith after telling us that more and more twentysomethings are making their way toward liturgy:

A: Liturgy, on the other hand, speaks to us of a timeless, unchanging God who is not reliant on magic tricks or aces up the sleeve to get people into his congregations. There is something proven, and therefore credible, about practices that extend back to ancient times.

Liturgy, properly understood, is the absolute height of institutionalization. It is literally the systematic expression of worship that, in its more orthodox forms, really does “force” the faithful to worship at 6:00am, 7:00pm, on the Sabbath, during Lent, on Ash Wednesday, etc.

In other words, and I think this is generally true of twentysomethings who write about their evangelical church experience, the institutionalization they are accustomed to is something they think is hallow and the institutionalization they find novel is non-trivial.

Now, there really may be something to that. Maybe the evangelical church threw out the baby with the bath water when we reacted against liberal mainline theology in the late nineteenth century. Critical and irenic analysis is called for when working on the difference between a “typical” evangelical institution and the ancient/future thrust popular in many circles.

I look forward to reading more on this issue, as it is of genuine concern for me. Is the rift between young adults and their churches a maturity issue? Is it a cultural issue? Do most leaders in our churches really lack that much understanding of the younger generation?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"Yeah, I'm calling from, like, my motorcycle."

I saw something last night I have never seen before. It was about 8:30pm, dark, and I was driving alongside a guy on a motorcycle talking on his cell phone. It wasn’t a bluetooth earpiece, it was just a normal cell phone wedged between his right shoulder (throttle hand) and ear.

Have cell phones become so ubiquitous and commonplace that we no longer think of them as an impediment to interacting with the world around us when we really need to be paying attention? There is no way this guy was safe on his bike and cell phone at the same time, but the awkward physical position and noise level didn’t phase him one bit. Is it really too much to ask to hang up while you are driving a bike and call your buddy back when you reach your destination?

Maybe I am being a bit curmudgeonly, but are we becoming way too accustomed to having life the way we want it when we want it? If driving a motorcycle at night is not enough to make us postpone a possibly pointless conversation, do we have our priorities all askew?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

New Blog on the Church and Pomo Culture

the church and postmodern culture: conversation

If you are interested in the future of the American church, the Emergent movement and their intersections with postmodern culture, this looks like it might be an interesting blog to keep tabs on.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Emerging to Where? From What?

I often look at Relevant Magazine with a slanted eye, but the article, For Change’s Sake, caught my attention. In it, Brett McCracken poses a small set of crucial-but as of yet unanswered-questions to the emergent church movement. What he really wants to know is, why? and, where to? The emergent movement has been clear that they are reacting to the infiltration of Modernism in the American church, but that has been shown to be mostly a canard comprised of a handful of bad experiences and overreactions. The substantive criticisms the emergent movement level at Modernism are typically philosophically and historically under-informed. Where they are strong is when they note the captivity many in our culture are in with regard to consumerism and the consequent thinning of life. But is postmodernism the answer?

McCracken notes:

Before we push on and proclaim an emerging new church, perhaps we ought to first think hard and fast about where we’ve come from and why we need to leave it behind.

It is the tendency of many enamored with Postmodernism and the emergent movement to not think deeply about Modernism and its pros and cons. Typically, straw men are erected the summarily torn down. For example, it is common for postmodern Christians to decry the failure of Cartesian Foundationalism. If Descartes failed, the conclusion is that Modernism is a failure. Never mind the general consensus of Christian philosophers that Cartesian Foundationalism is a general failure, but that some form of modest foundationalism is not. It is a stereotypical case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater without even investigating the baby.

Then there is the penchant of the emergent movement to embrace uncertainty. McCracken writes:

There are many things we can talk about regarding the “emerging church,” which is good because the movement itself is all about conversation. Talking about what the emerging church is or could be is the emerging church: An ongoing ontological conversation. But that is both a good and bad thing, because putting “conversation/dialogue” on too high a pedestal can be problematic. The emerging church has reacted against its former self, which unfortunately didn’t allow for all that much open dialogue or meta-critique. But the reaction—at least to me—has gone too far, frequently embracing postmodern uncertainty and conversational ambiguity to the point of absurdity.

Add to that the tendency to side-step direct questions and the avoidance of direct answers even on topics Scripture speaks to clearly.

Controversy is routinely avoided at all cost, and identity often comes more from what "emerging" isn’t than what it is....The Church, before it can really emerge into a new significance, must continually check itself: Where have we come from, where are we going, how will be get there, and most importantly—why? If we don’t understand this, we are in serious trouble.

A movement claiming the future of evangelical Christianity will not get far if it is infiltrated with postmodern relativism, deconstructionism, obscurantism, and ambiguity. At least, I hope it doesn’t.