On Phone Booths, Dying Churches, and Capitalism

Posted May 10, 2014 @ 3:57pm | by Tripp

Sojourners has launched a series entitled, “Letters to A Dying Church.” There are some good posts thus far and I am sure there are more to come. I was thinking about writing one, but then it occurred to me that it might be more fun to watch how the posts unfold and how others might respond to them before I chimed in with my little epistle. Also, reading what's there, I don't have much to add.

Here is a quote or two:

Derek Penwell asks, “What if you took this terminal diagnosis as an opportunity to quit living in fear, and used it as motivation to do something ridiculously daring? What have you got to lose? You’re on your way out anyway, right?”

Mark Sandlin turns things upside down (again), “The reality is your reason for being, your very purpose, is to teach us about a living God. How marvelously playful and mischievous of God (and quite frankly, how very God-like of God) to figure out how to do that over and over again through a dying church. Like I said, this isn't the first time you've died you know. How perfectly upside-down of God to show us exactly how alive God is through a dying church.”

Brandan Robertson writes, “But I was recently reminded that what we have been witnessing in the West is not, in fact, the death of the church at all. Instead, we are experiencing the death of Christendom. We are experiencing the death of the triumphalist age of Christian influence over the globe in which predominately European Christians used the message of the Gospel and the structure of the church to leverage power, wealth, and influence.”

Keep following. More posts are scheduled. 

Looking elsewhere on teh interwebz, Nadia Bolz-Weber preached a sermon at her Synod meeting entitled, “Stop Saying The Church is Dying.” Now, before you go thinking that she’s painting some polyanna response to Sojourners, you need to read the sermon. Here’s a quotation (emphasis her's):

But the thing is, buildings, numbers, money, power – and other aspects of worldly success may indeed be signs of A kingdom, but brothers and sisters, they are not necessarily signs of THE Kingdom.. I mean, were this denomination of ours a company, then for sure, investors would be scurrying for cover. But, people of God, maybe now is the time for us to take a hard look at the ways in which the church has tended to judge our success on a set of values that perhaps we had no business buying into in the first place. Namely our society’s free-market corporate American values of what success looks like.

If that is the case, then I repeat – we came by it honestly. Swept up as we were into having banked so much cultural currency in America. But those days have gone. They’ve gone.

This is what has me cought up right now as I desperately try to get other things done today.

“Those days have gone. They’ve gone.” This is the thing. It's not just about church. We're wrangling with the economy and how institutions function on almost every level of society. Even utilities once held sacred are uncertain institutions. This is why I keep writing about the music industry and keep calling it "ecclesiology." Don't you see? No one controls the information. Faith is now information. There is a "spiritual information marketplace." Thus, our products fly about all willy nilly. Anyone can use the Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal Church. Anyone. And they do...for devotions both individual and corporate. Who knew? Similarly, artists struggle to make money because the assumed income streams are drying up and new ones don't stick around long enough to be trusted. It's all shaking out in new ways. 

So why would the Church be any different especially if, as Nadia rightly states, we're measuring it according to market barometrics? If, as she writes, the the fall of the Byzantine Empire meant the end of the Byzantine Church and encouraged the proliferation of it's spirtual wares, then why would we expect to see anything different in our present time?

Of course, it's not that we expect to see anything different. It's just that maybe we thought it would pass us by somehow. You know. Someone else's congregation closing is sad. Sure. But our congregation? Well, that's the end of Everything. Of course, it is passing some of us by. Different parts of the country experience this shifting of institutional life differently. Of course. But, comparing Dallas and San Francisco is demographic foolishness. But this is what flailing about for sollutions looks like. "If it worked in Dallas then surely in San Francisco we can..."

I'm about to start a new job (more on that soon) and I am more aware than ever of the precarious nature of our religious institutions. But, as many have said, I have faith that Christianity is not dying. It is, however, changing its institutional skin. 

This is the hell of the incarnation. 

It sometimes hurts. 

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