Monday, May 28, 2012

Corporate Christianity and a New Monasticism

I am reading Diana Butler Bass’ new Christianity After Religion.  It takes me a long time to read a book.  First of all because I am a bit learning disabled and it has seemed to worsen as I have gotten older.  The other reason is because I like to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’.  I read a bit and then I think about what is said.  Now that read on my Kindle, I don’t mark because my version doesn’t have that capacity.  So I am likely to blog about what I have read.

I have followed Bass’ career; she is an Episcopalian, after all.  But she also used to teach at the seminary where I used to train seminarians.  And I have been interested in her understanding of the history of the Church coming as she does from a very evangelical, charismatic experience of faith.  I tend to see things through the lens of my catholic foundations so hers is a remarkable contrast to my own. Her critique is one that I can understand and even support.  While we are both historians, she is as much a sociologist as she is historian.  She supports her work with statistics that I have never followed.  And her attention to modern Church History is broad while mine is only because I have lived through it in my own particular world.

She makes a point about the corporate model and how this rather modern model for the American Church took root only in the 19th Century.  It was modeled first by the Presbyterians and then all denominations took it on.  It is one of the manifestations of Americanism that we have exported throughout the world.  Even Roman Catholicism was not the ‘big business’ that it is today prior to Vatican I in the mid-1800.  It was to ape the modern world that churches styled themselves in the corporate way of management.  It was a model that people understood and it was quite successful.

Somehow, my personal experience of faith was not molded by this business model.  I came to know of Christ through the influence of Roman Catholic religious who lived lives of quiet community.  It is there that I found richness of an intensely personal experience of God as well as a unique respect for how my faith intertwined with not only how I lived but with whom I lived.  Faith and community cannot be separated for me so I have become a Christian for whom being an Episcopalian is an important piece of my identity.  Can I worship in other brands?  Of course!  Do I worship with other communities?  Sure.  But I have thrown my lot with TEC and find it important that it is that community of faith I serve. 

But even in its heyday, this corporate model was foreign to me.  I accepted it, but it was not where my relationship with God ‘hit the road.’   The very personal but not private relationship with the Holy was something that could only be lived in a small community.  Perhaps this is the reason that I often chose small town ministry as the place where most of my parish ministry took place.  It wasn’t so much of being the 'big fish in a small pond' as it was that ministry was intensely personal, intimate and local.  I did not attempt to manhandle large groups in order to ‘spread the Gospel.’ 

Most of my classmates in seminary in the early ‘80’s were from large churches, were upper-middle class and very familiar with this corporate experience of faith.  They were also mainly Baby Boomers whose lives had been deeply affected by the educational efforts of over-whelmed school systems and ‘hurry-up and wait’ mentalities that accompanied Boomers wherever they went.  I was a war baby and did not have the same need to climb over the next guy that Boomers exhibited. I realized that how I understood faith was significantly different from my classmates but that did not seem to matter.  Most of us understood the call of God to serve and that was what was the important thing then.   

Over the past 10 to 15 years so much has happened in the Church that it is hard to find the same Church for which I was ordained.  I find some of it here in FTW because FTW has been kept from growing for the past 30 years under bishops who refused to allow the Church to change.  Their dogmatism soured people on the Church so the people who are now in the pews are people who have been released from captivity.  And there is a temptation for us to go back to a church before the dogmatic and the control-seekers took over.  There is a temptation to reinstate a type of clerical leadership that is based in those worn corporate models that are past their time.

If Christianity is going to survive this ‘crisis’ of membership that is presently present in all religious groups in the US, we are going to have to approach ministry in a much more personal way.  We are now post-Boomer.  We no longer can depend on the Boomer population to hike our numbers unless we are going to do some significant work among seniors. (That wouldn’t be a bad idea, either)  Clergy are going to have to be more hands on.  We are going to have to be more available and we are going to be less word and sacrament people and more guides and pointers to the Holy.  We are going to have to offer less big and magnificent liturgies and offer more meditative, spiritually moving opportunities.  We are going to have to be more involved in local community activities as the sign of our community of faith, not merely figureheads but as real people concerned about the community we live in.  Clergy are going to have to return to be the Parson—the local Person of faith in the community to whom a seeker might go to find the holy within themselves and get connected to a community of faith. ( Ir is interesting that Google Images cannot seem to even understand the role of the parson. The only pictures are of terriers.  There are no images of that hands-on person in a community that provides guidance and counsel in matters spiritual.) 

Parsons are going to have to build community among those who have found the Holy.  These faith communities will regrow because the Christian life needs a community in which to practice its concepts and theology.  They need to work out their faith in 'fear and trembling.' and it is there that new models for our lives together can evolve.  Will our morals change? Most likely because we be able to contexturalize our faith better in the smaller lived-in communities. 

Bass’ book makes me think that the failure of the big business model for the Church goes right along with the failure of the big business model for businesses.  Just as GM or American Airlines must restructure, so must we as Church.  It is painful.  But if we go back to the ‘small is beautiful’ model of a community-based faith then our dependence on bishops as THE minister of the diocese and the sole arbiter of TRUTH will fall away.  The truth of the Gospel will be lived out in the small communities of faith that speak of spirituality and relationship with the Holy.  We may be on the verge of a whole new form of monasticism—or communal living as a sign of a living Holy faith.  But I can predict that the greatest stumbling block toward restructure will come from the Boomers.  It is this group that is so invested in the corporate model because that is all that has ever worked for them.  

Rather than call this new spirituality that is developing Post-Modern, I would be more inclined to call it Post-Boomer.  I do not find the call to a more spiritual expression of Christian Community especially post-modern.  I find that many of the practices are quite old and pre-Enlightenment.  I find meditation, chanting, communal living, music, spiritual reading, prayerful walking in the woods, all ancient practices embraced by various faiths.  The Holy has always made itself known and will continue to do so.  The importance for those who are awed by this Holy One is that we find a way to share this awe and live in ways that the peace the Holy imparts can be live fully.

1 comment:

Hot Cup Lutheran said...

i'm glad you shared your thoughts which affirmed for me my desire to be in rural ministry... smaller setting etc. even if many colleagues view small town ministry as "stepping stones" or "less than" b/c after all ministry here does not revolve around programs...

i find it very personal. in a town of less than 500, and the only clergy living in town "parson" indeed. (there are other churches, but their clergy live away)

the thing in this type of setting i find absolutely the hardest... is that if the pastor/parson/rector is available for everyone at all hours... well where then does the parson turn for support? i know it's a struggle as old as time...

but anyhoos there is value in small, personal, relational ministry... deep value.