Churches Stuck in a Rut, or Transformed?

 

I once preached a sermon called “Stuck in Schadenfreude”   Schadenfreude?    What does that mean?   It’s a German word that says in one word that “we find satisfaction and pleasure in the troubles of others”!   For mainline churches today who are dwindling in number Schadenfreude is found in such statements as this one that we often hear in our churches:   “Well, our membership may be shrinking but the same is true for all mainline churches and evangelicals and Catholics and Jews and megachurches.   Our numbers are down but their membership numbers are worse!   Schadenfreude.   Instead of seeking to get out of the rut, we just say, well others are in the same rut. It can’t be us, because they are worse than we are in numbers  and we take some pleasure that other churches are suffering like our church and argue that it is not our fault and that it must be attributed to this “new generation” of millenials who have no sense of dedication or commitment.  Our refusal to get out of the rut we’re in as churches is what the new generation is seeing.

Yes, it IS due to the new generation.  They see institutional religion as hypocritical, negative, uncaring, focused on membership and not reaching out to others in the community,  not spiritual,   anti-homosexual,  anti-abortion, but not really pro-anything except supporting right-wing Republicans;  and therefore irrelevant to their generation and to our society in general.  .    We may disagree with their definition of us as a church, but poll after poll after survey shows that is the thinking of our new generation.

We see this thinking also  in a rising majority of other than young  people who say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”   They are really saying that the present institutional church does not offer what they feel they really need—-a connection with God and with other people that we would call a spiritual connection to God and neighbor.    Most surveys show that what people are longing for is “community”  and “spirituality“.   They have heard that the church is supposed to be made up of followers of Jesus Christ who model their lives and actions after his love for people, for the outcasts.  for the sick and lame, for the poor.   Instead they see an institution that sits on soft cushions in air conditioned sanctuaries once a week and say they are disciples of Jesus.

These people are telling the churches something and churches need to listen carefully to what they are saying.   What they are saying is that churches need to be transformed into the image of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Looking back at recent history of the Christian Churches in the U.S. we see that in the middle of the 20th century Christianity boomed  and the churches were full after World War II.  Mainline churches, out of necessity, needed to become better organized institutions to deal with the large numbers.  We chose to   pattern our churches in a similar way that the business model of General Motors was patterned.   Our churches grew corporate headquarters with program divisions, church development, professional marketing departments, professional development and career paths, executive guidance,  and layers of staff and committees to make decisions all reporting to a Board of Directors. The same patterns were copied by local churches with Boards of Directors, a complicated committee system, professional leaders of worship and music and Christian Education, etc. etc. that reported to the committees who were responsible to the  Board.   We still try to maintain this pattern even though it no longer works.

And just like General Motors became bloated with all its organizational structure, local and national churches became bloated with committees that stifled creativity and began to focus on maintaining the institution, building large churches, expanding, expanding—-and in the midst of all of this, the churches forgot what their mission was.   The mission of being disciples of Jesus was lost.   As Diana Butler Bass says in her book Christianity after Religion      ” the business of the church replaced he mission of the church.”

When customers of General Motors began to become discontented with the high-priced and poorly engineered  gas hogs being produced at the time of the first gasoline crisis, they quit buying General Motors Cars and went in droves to Japanese  car-makers.   General Motors over-organization caused them to not be able to keep up with the creativity of competing auto manufacturers because of all the layers of organization  they had to go through before changes could be made—-and GM lost much of their market share, so that they were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy by the time the Great Recession hit in 2007.  They had to transform themselves in order to become competitive.

When the first decade of the 21st century hit, religious institutions found themselves with the same problem.   After 9/11 people flocked to churches in droves, but they did not find what they sought and quickly became disillusioned.  Because the business of the church had  replaced the mission of the church, people began leaving and numbers dwindled and the big business model of GM was no longer what was needed.   There was rising discontent with what the institutional churches were offering people.  People registered that discontent by walking away from the institutional church in ever larger numbers or went church shopping and found no improvements, so were in and out of churches, looking for what they needed but not finding it.   The discontent is reflected in the summary of many surveys found in  the first and second paragraphs of this post,  and resulted in the decline of the institutional church—all institutional churches.

What to do?    Churches must get out of their rut and  transform themselves.   They  must redefine their mission as not being that of maintaining church buildings but of working for social and economic justice for the poor and the outcasts of society.   They  must seek and provide ways of connecting people to God in spiritual  communities that are not over-organized institutions but are communities of faith where people can find God and can seek to help each other live in a spiritual community that seeks to carry out the mission that Jesus carried out in his ministry.   As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome:  Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—-what is good and acceptable and perfect”.  (Rom. 12:1-2)

If  the institutional church remains stuck in the rut of “but we have always done it this way” (the seven deadly words of the church) , it will slowly  die.

Diana Butler Bass tells of receiving a New Year’s greeting in 2010 from a friend, with the greeting wishing her “the gift of discontent”.  Enclosed with the greeting was this prayer:

O God, make me discontented with things the way they are in the world and in my own life.   Make me noticed the stains when people get spilled on.   Make me care about the slum child downtown, the misfit at work, the people crammed into the mental hospital, the men, women and youth behind bars.  Jar my complacency, expose my excuses, get me involved in the life of my city and world.  Give me integrity once more, O God, as we seek to be changed and transformed, with a new understanding and awareness of our common humanity.”

Perhaps we need as a church to pray often this prayer of discontent.

 

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