The picture to the left is of the old chapel at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Well, it's a picture of the chapel that was once the old chapel at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Not too long after I graduated, Seabury went through a whole re-shuffling and sold its buildings to Northwestern University and moved elsewhere. This picture is very recent.
Seabury is not the subject of this post. This picture is. This picture and what it represents to me...scaffolding inside a gutted sanctuary. The pews and altar are gone. The stained glass is gone. What will it be? I don't know what the university plans, but I'm excited to find out. I look at this picture and I experience many emotions. Grief, sadness...but mostly I'm excited. I'm deeply curious. What does God have planned for the space and what can I learn from the next thing that's in store?
I've been thinking about the last several popular posts on the state of the mainline church in the United States. I have a lot of thoughts at the same time that I don't have any solutions...assuming that solutions are what we need. I am worried about one thing though. I am worried about the bait and switch that could come from some of us "hyphenates" (mainliners in the Emergent conversation). It might hurt some folks already in the pews.
Maybe you know this already, but around 1970 there was the beginning of a period of (an explosion of) suburban growth. Liberal Boomers were graduating college and setting up shop in the suburbs just like everyone else. They were just as churched as their more conservative generation-mates, but they were looking for something other than "your grandmother's church." They wanted a place to be spiritual but not religious. They wanted someplace that held a lose relationship with doctrine but held community as primary.
Many of them were willing to live with a lot of "religion" as long as they were free to think what they wanted to think and participate in the service life of the congregation. Some wanted that "old time religion" without the weight of religiosity or belief that came with it. Many of them found such communities. Young pastors and their guitars and their children awaited them and together they would grow in community. They would find a new way to live into the old forms.
Sound familiar? It should.
Of course, there is one cultural difference between their time and ours that we need to note: These days when people want community, they just create it. When they want a spiritual experience, they just create it. When they want to be perceived as good Americans, they don't have to go to church or to the synagogue to proove it. In 1970, the church still held sway. The GOP knew it then and they invented the Southern Strategy that same year. Get the church and you get the people. Not anymore. In many parts of the country the people simply aren't in church. They are spiritual-but-not-religious in a whole new way.
If you are in a congregation you now have to ask yourself, "So, why would anyone go to church anymore?" Pardon the gross oversimplification, but people attend church to some degree to be religious...to be Christian and all the sticky, messy doctrinal and mystical confusion that comes with it. They may engage it differently than we imagine Christians once did. For example, Baptists using icons and banjos. They may tinker with it, but they are there to be religious. For some of those already in the pews, there might not be worse news.
It's the bait and switch.
People in those old liberal pews aren't like those in the Emergent Movement. No. Brian McLaren and the Emergent Movement seems so conservative to the people in these pews. So...Jesusy.
You've been in your congregation for decades thinking you had found a community to raise your kids and managed to dodge religion and instead you are being told by your pastors that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in 1970. More symbols (including the symbolic language like the Creeds included in a recent edition of a Baptist hymnal). More art. More mysticism. More spirituality. Not less.
Yvette Flunder spoke at the Wild Goose Festival in Oregon over Labor Day Weekend. She's a good Pentecostal...a progressive, lesbian, partnered, "Methobaptipentacostal" pastor of a UCC church in San Francisco. She admonished us, had us on our feet..."Get your God back!" she exclaimed. She had us saying it by the end of the sermon. It was powerful and had my mind thinking about that space at Seabury and the scaffolding there.
As the church wrestles to move into the future, what might all our congregations look and feel like on the inside as we try to get our God back?