There is something antithetical to the christian church's pursuit of dollars and seats in the pews, as if it were another profit-driven corporation, given the individual human need for deep, safe and sustainable relationships with God and others, beyond those inside the nuclear family. Such relationships are more likely if and when the circle of believers exposes itself to the fears inside the group, the anxieties inside the group's members, the hopes, dreams and even the illnesses within the circle. They are not necessarily enhanced through the triumphal criterion of being "bigger" or "richer" or of a "higher status" in the 'establishment' of a specific urban centre. In fact, it can be argued, (and is being argued here!) that the churches with the largest membership lists are conducting something akin to "paint-by-number" theology, as in formal greetings, formal liturgies including formal readings, singing and fund-raising, formal homilies, formal eucharists, and formal farewells. God, it would seem, to an outside observer, must really appreciate formality! What kind of God most appreciates such formality? Is it a God who is unhappy perhaps even displeased with human casualness, human relaxation, human meditation, human doubting and questioning? And who is there to question such an approach, given the stability and the durability of such a process, that to us seems utterly superficial, both in attempting to establish authentic relationships with God and with each other. Certainly, such formality provides a kind of social security for any who might venture inside the sanctuary from the outside, looking for a road map for how to "behave" while entering something called the 'worship of God'. More importantly, such formality also provides security from exposure of the frail and anxious and shy and withdrawn and the reticent who might be in those pews.
Yet, does formality, as in the formality of a manuscript of a concerto, or an oratorio, provide a culture in which God's hand, eye, touch and even awesomeness can be better appreciated than in an informal setting like a seminar, for example, or a discussion group, or a film followed by a guided discernment of the issues?
The Puritans are renowned for their pursuit of moral purity, through hard work, self-denial, self-discipline and the rejection of anything that smacks of idolatry. The cliche "cracker-barrel" aphorism that evil is more likely among 'idle hands'... elevating industriousness to a holy grail, is also a gift from the Puritans. In North America, there is a very high dependency on the teachings of the Puritans, as if they had an "insight" into the mind, heart and soul of God, and thereby bequeath such insight to those in the pews.
So if we combine both the pursuit of numbers with the industriousness of the Puritans, in the effort to evangelize, to develop new converts, we see a religious institution that is driven by the "sales" component of the largest corporations. In fact, one silly woman once was heard to comment, to a group of christian church members, quoting Og Mandino's pablum, "Jesus was the world's best salesman!"...
as if Jesus was then, or could today, be reduced to the best salesman of human history. The how of what a church does is as important, if not more important than, what a church body believes, and confesses in its life together.
And the how of the many faces of the twenty-first century christian church has to include too many churches that depend on some extrinsic model of "growth", dependent on the flow of bodies and dollars through the doors to the sanctuary. Marketing, the pursuit of "sales" quotas, the strategizing around how to "keep the ship afloat" in a world gone secular in the extreme....these are the rallying cries that are ringing across North American christianity, as if the corporate model is the one most promising to keep the church alive, while all signs point to its eventually demise. One clergy even ventured to predict that in five years one of the most 'established' christian churches would disappear from the urban Canadian landscape.
Time for a modest wake-up call?
Well, it is not difficult to see the dilemma of the attempt to recruit people in, while the sword of bankruptcy hangs over the threshold. And much of that sword is of the church's own making....not merely the rising costs of heat, building maintenance, pensions and salaries, choir gowns and music, youth outreach programs and their staffing....these are all what might be called somewhat fixed costs.
Certainly, clergy are not unionizing for more money, nor are choir members or their organists, nor are youth leaders nor are church educators. In fact, the reverse is true: no organization has depended on the generosity of its professional work force, to its own detriment, more than the christian church, on both sides of the 49th parallel. If accountants were to calculate the per diem, or per hour rate of pay for the average clergy, the figures would literally astound most observers, analysts and even laity leaders.
However, it is not in the corporate "look-and-act-alike-ness" of the church to the corporation that the recommendations can or will be found.
It is conversely in the opposite model: the small home-based, struggling and searching, reading and praying and reflecting groups in which deep and mysterious and deeply personal truths of all kinds, from both genders, and all generations, are shared in the assured safety and security of both confidentiality and complete respect from one to another, including all within the circle...that we are more likely to find a spectre of spiritual support, growth and experimentation not either available or desired in the larger, impersonal, mega-churches. And, in order for such a culture to take root, there has to be a radical shift among all those who aspire to church leadership, to church leadership education, to church leadership development and to church membership education and development.
The christian church has to shift its focus from the study of its sociology and its accounting crises, to the process of growing disciples of that same Jesus who walked the narrow paths of non-conformity among the outcasts in Nazareth, Bethlehem and elsewhere. Growing disciples takes considerable time, even more attention than the average fruit and vegetable, certainly an intimate knowledge and awareness and insight into the human potential for living a life dedicated to the unfettered, unobstructed, apolitical, and certainly non-corporate ways of both being and becoming a follower of Jesus Christ Resurrected.
And such a growth and development process is completely at odds with the process of filling a role in a corporate structure that is and has for too long, sacrificed its purpose and its meaning to the corporate model.
Believers, as Luther reminded us, are not believers who believe what the church teaches them to believe. Believers come to their beliefs through a searching, questioning and committed relationship to an alignment with what they perceive and consider to be God's will for their lives. That process would have to include close and mutual relationships with others, a small number, who have voluntarily, openly and unreservedly committed to their own spiritual growth to follow a similar path, to serve as both guide and critic of each other, to support and affirm both the questions and the however tentative answers that might emerge from short and long periods of silent meditation, small conversations, readings, prayers, writings and even other forms of personal discipline that enhance the fullest development of each individual.
These processes, for the most part, do not cost a lot of money; they do, however, cost a great deal in terms of commitment, sacrifice, tenacity and perseverance, and risk, especially of being different.
They do not necessarily mean a monastery, although there are clearly things from the monastic life that would be well incorporated into the process. They also do not mean turning each group of believers into a mini-seminary, although there is clearly a place for some of the more solid and contemporary research findings from all academic disciplines that belong in such a vision of human spiritual development.
There is, and could be no place for a spiritual guru, given the unique and diverse needs, attitudes and talents among the members of the spiritual circle, although there would clearly be times when, by concensus, a decision to seek input and guidance from a wise disciple would serve both the individuals and the circle's growth to another level.
There is and could be no place for mere gossip, something that plagues every christian church denomination and parish, and it would require a universal commitment from all members in the circle to eradicate it from the culture of the group.
There is and could be no place for a theology of "triumphal" growth in the sense of acquiring new members, and here the Jewish model, of resisting more than recruiting new members, would be more appropriate.
A neophyte cleric, called to attend a meeting with a bishop and his executive assistant, by the EA, "because I have been trying to get the bishop to listen for nine years without success, and thought perhaps you might be able to get through," found the bishop, in the meeting, asking him "Why did you call this meeting, demanding the time of the bishop and his assistant?" realized that he had been 'set-up' for the political purposes of the assistant, and decided to turn the meeting around, when he was later asked by the bishop,"What do you want from us?"
His reply went something like this: I would respectfully like a relationship with the larger church, the diocese and the bishop....
As I beaver away in the little mission to which I have been assigned, I find myself in a small row-boat, with a few people in the boat, each with a different 'rowing' instrument, paddling each in their own respective and undirected and random way, and the boat merely turns round and round....and when I look up at the bigger picture in the regional church, both the diocese and the national church, I see replications of a similar picture...everyone paddling with a different 'oar' in a different time and direction and I wonder why I am unable to make headway in attempting to get the boat to benefit from the combined paddling of all inside the boat....and then I can see that there is no agreed direction, but only an agreement to work hard paddling, in whatever direction and pace each individual chooses.
To which the bishop responded, "Nice poetry, but I still do not know why you called this meeting!
For this moment, I rest my case.....having been the neophyte cleric in that long-ago meeting.