Friday, April 22, 2011
Holy Week is the Christian Church’s annual celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, topics previously addressed in Ethical Musings (Rethinking the crucifixion and Resurrection). This year rather than address the historicity of those events and their meaning for individuals, I want to view the events in the context of the Church as a dynamic, evolving institution. This seems an apt time for such reflections, presuming that one accepts the idea that the Church is the body of Christ. How, then, does the body die? How does the body experience resurrection?
Paul Tillich was the first theologian to enunciate the Protestant principle, the proposition that the Church required continuous reformation to remain the Church. Otherwise, the Church ossifies, idolatrously worshiping dead bones rather than a living entity.
Another Paul – the Apostle – helpfully reminds us that what lives must die before receiving new life. This is true for the Church. Cherished forms, whether liturgical or theological, must die before new life can emerge. In other words, the Church is the only same yesterday, today, and tomorrow if it ceases to be the Church. Yet we persist in clinging, often desperately clutching in a grip that chokes out life, to liturgical and theological forms that over the course of one’s lifetime have become dear. I write this as one who loves Anglican liturgy and much of Anglican theology, so I write to myself as well as to others.
In the first half of the twentieth century, America’s preeminent preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church, suggested that good preaching was group counseling. Norman Vincent Peale took Fosdick’s suggestion a step further: the content of that group counseling should emphasize the power of positive of thinking. In second half of the twentieth century, Robert Schuller pushed the message even further, arguing in his preaching and writing (e.g., his book, The New Reformation) that focusing on possibility thinking and self-esteem were the harbingers and themes of the Church’s next reformation.
I resisted those suggestions, persisting in my beliefs that Christians could not reduce the Church’s teachings to self-help messages and that people wanted sermons to engage them in reflecting on life’s deeper questions.
Today, a growing proportion of Christians attend megachurches, in which the average Sunday attendance exceeds 1000. In a significant majority of megachurches, the theology is the gospel lite, i.e., heavy on self-help and light on traditional Christian theology as is true at the USA’s largest church, Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, which Joel Osteen pastors.
Philip Rieff in his book, Triumph of the Therapeutic, observed that psychology was supplanting theology as the dominant interpretive paradigm in the United States. The shift in theology – Schuller’s new reformation – that I have briefly charted in this posting supports Rieff’s observation.
Attendance figures do not indicate either the fidelity or veracity of the message communicated in a church. Conversely, declining attendance statistics clearly point to a problem, a lack of connection with people if nothing else. Mainline attendance, as is occurring in the Episcopal Church (cf. Ethical Musings, Reversing the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church), provides ample documentation of that failure for an extended period.
Is the self-help, gospel-lite message of megachurches is a more accurate twenty-first century retelling of the Jesus story than the traditional formulation of the Jesus story found in the Creeds? Is the crucifixion at least partially a description of dying to self, including dying to the forms and expressions of Churchmanship that one loves? Is the resurrection the transformation from death to new life observable in megachurches, a ministry that answers human needs for meaning, community, and value? I wonder. Maybe the emergent church is the Church.