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Fake Church Transformation

When churches are political tribes at prayer -- and don't want to change
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A reader at an Episcopal parish e-mailed to share part of a letter he sent to his pastor. The leadership team of the “leftish” (his word) parish is reading together a book called The Art of Transformation: Three Things Churches Do That Change Everything, by Paul Fromberg, rector of an Episcopal parish in San Francisco. Here is what the reader had to say to his pastor about it:

According to the Gospel, Jesus honored solitude. Sometimes, he drew away as a challenge and an invitation for others to follow him. Sometimes, he drew away because he had work to do that could only be done in isolation.

I believe that our selves are more porous than is taught in the Enlightenment view of the atomistic individual. There is little evidence that the self/other distinction is illusory. Whereas there seems to be plenty of evidence that the self/other distinction is real, albeit not as neat and well-defined as our society tends to assert.

We’ve talked before about the cross as a metaphor for directions of relationship, with some churches in America emphasizing the vertical, individual relationship to God while missing the horizontal, communal relationship to the people around us. It seems that Fromberg has gone too far to the horizontal. I understand him as advocating for a dissolution of individual identity into the collective congregation. He strikes me as dismissive of any assertion of individuality and corresponding desire for solitude. This, in my opinion, is not only wrongheaded, it is demeaning to the diversity that Fromberg claims to celebrate. See, e.g., his description of a parishioner who preferred not to be touched during the peace, for reasons Fromberg apparently failed to explore.

It also seems to me that Fromberg’s emphasis on transformation is actually a form of born-again spirituality. Right-wing born-again Christianity says we must be transformed individually, whereas Fromberg’s left-wing version seems to say we must lose our individual identities and be transformed collectively.

I don’t see anything in Fromberg attempting to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the positions (1) “You are loved as you are”; and (2) “You need to be radically transformed.”

Also, seeking either right or left versions of transformation and the corresponding subjective experience of transformation strikes me as a form of demanding signs as validation of faith.

I also question an emphasis on “feeling the presence of God.” What if somebody never felt the presence of God, was never validated in faith, experientially or materially, and yet trusted Jesus and continued to trust through life and into death, solely because it was right to do so? Wouldn’t that be the most beautiful and holiest faith of all? After all, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Now I’m reacting not only to Fromberg’s book but to a year of subscribing to the Christian Century, which I did not renew because it appeared to be written solely by and for baby boomers.

I am convinced that the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States will not exist in any meaningful way 25 years from now. The moment I became convinced that it and other mainline denominations are doomed was the “Reclaiming Jesus” declaration put out last year or the year before. The video trailer builds it up spectacularly, a bunch of famous progressive pastors proclaiming that in this historical moment the church “cannot remain silent.” And then the actual statement was a mealy-mouthed, milquetoast little thing that basically boiled down to saying “we’re baby boomers and we don’t like Trump,” but they couldn’t even bring themselves to say that very strongly. There was nothing wrong per se in the content of the document, but if this is all they have to proclaim or “reclaim,” they are irrelevant and doomed.

If Mainline Protestant denominations do not learn to say something more than “we’re not right-wing” they will (and deserve to) go extinct. For example, left-wing churches seem to think it’s enough to welcome all sexual and gender identities, but have little to say about developing a Christian ethics of sexual behavior that recognizes the physical, emotional, and financial risk to which we, gay or straight, expose ourselves and others through sexual intimacy. To view sexuality solely through the lens of self-expression is selfish and reckless. Rod Dreher, I believe, has written that sexual liberation is the prosperity gospel of progressive churches, and frankly, I don’t see much effort to prove him wrong.

In my opinion, our society is ripe for the emergence of a powerful vision that emphasizes, reconciles, and honors both the vertical and the horizontal: the individual in relation to God and community. Today, nobody seems to be able to get the balance right.

Probably these concerns have been addressed in papers and books somewhere, but if solutions are not manifest in the world, then what is written may not matter.

Thoughts, readers?

The same kind of critique could be leveled at individual churches that seemed to aspire to little more than being political conservatives at prayer. In a new essay in The Atlantic,  Alan Jacobs, who has long identified as an Evangelical, writes of the current crisis of Evangelicalism:

But it seems to me that of all the traits that attracted evangelicals to Reagan, perhaps the most important was his sunny and fervent patriotism. Already white American evangelicals had a tendency to associate Christianity closely with the American experiment, and to think of their country as a “Christian nation” or, at the very least, actuated by “Judeo-Christian values.” But as the decades passed and American church leaders in almost all denominations became less interested in traditional Christian doctrines and more interested in what some scholars have come to call moralistic therapeutic deism, a larger and larger proportion of white evangelicals became what Pew Research calls “God-and-Country Believers.” These folks, almost all of whom are white, may not attend church often or at all, and they may not be interested in, or even aware of, the beliefs that have typically characterized evangelical Christians, but they know this much: They believe in God, and they believe in America, and they love Donald Trump because he speaks blunt Truth to culturally elite Power, and when asked by pollsters whether they are evangelicals, they say yes.

By now, God-and-Country Believers are so accustomed to voting Republican—and to being disdained or mocked by Democrats—that few of them can remember doing anything else. And God-and-Country Believers are what most Americans, whether religious or not, now think that evangelicals are.

I think that’s right. When I meet a white Evangelical, I assume that is true until shown otherwise. The conservative Evangelicals I count as friends, whether or not they voted for Trump, are not like that at all. But it’s so common that I take it for granted. And Jacobs says that many contemporary white American Evangelicals would not dispute that God-and-Country characterization. For them, “Evangelicalism” is more of a racial and cultural identity than a specific theological commitment.

A few years back, I spoke at length with the pastor of a large (but not mega) Evangelical church. He was burning out. He told me his congregation all affirmed the doctrinal things that Evangelicals are supposed to affirm, at least nominally. But deep down, they were resistant to his leadership. He was (is) a theological conservative, but he was trying to lead them away from their deep fear of Muslims, gays, and the turmoil in the culture. It’s not that he disputed that there are grave challenges to the Christian faith in this post-Christian culture. It’s rather that he believed that the core challenges were not necessarily the same ones, and in any case, the authentically Christian response to these challenges is not to remain petrified by fear, and to live as if the answer was to vote Republican, watch more Fox News, and hope that some great politician will come along and save us all from the apocalypse.

The congregation didn’t want to hear it. If I’m recalling our conversation accurately, the congregation — at least the middle aged and older ones — were transfixed by their Christianity as a political and cultural identity (and perhaps a racial one too — this was a white congregation).

I wonder if the frustration of the reader above with the idea of “transformation” in his leftish parish resonates with the frustration of that Evangelical pastor, who could not move his rightish congregation away from their unstated belief that the most important thing about their corporate Christian identity is “we’re not left-wing.”

It’s a hard balance to strike. Nobody is satisfied with pastors who avoid taking hard stands on any issue, out of fear an abundance of caution over being too political. We all know the types. Years ago, I got into an argument with a pastor who was personally pro-life, but who told me he would never preach about abortion because he believed it was wrong to “divide the congregation.” This rationalization allowed him to avoid preaching anything controversial, ever. Not about abortion, not about racism, not about sex, or greed, or anything that might trouble anybody’s conscience — or, actually, spark anybody’s interest.

Christianity is a faith that has a public dimension. If our faith is only a matter of private devotion, it isn’t Christianity. But the Christian faith also can’t be neatly fit into political categories. I tell you, I am glad that I am not a pastor these days. As I’ve said before, the churches really are suffering from a dearth of good leadership. But they are also suffering from a dearth of good followership.



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