Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Change or die.... change and die...

We all know the scenario.  Plummeting religious affiliation, fading denominational loyalty, dropping attendance, increasing disillusionment with religious institutions, waning interest in things doctrinal. . . you name it.  The sky is falling.  Behind these somber statistics from Barna come those who insist that the Church must change or die.  Diana Butler Bass is currently making the rounds with her own depressing talk of the demise of the Christian Church and her hopeful affirmation of a post-Church Christianity or new spiritual awakening is hardly something new but it is getting a lot of play nonetheless. 

A couple of things stand out in her sociological analysis of the state of (mostly Protestant) Christianity.  First of all, while aspects of her sad picture of the faith may cross over into the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and LCMS communions, the overall state of Christianity in these churches (creedal, liturgical, sacramental, and with deep historical roots) is healthier than the old-line Protestants she writes and speaks to and about.  Second, social justice (her take on "service driven faith") is an old band-aid for sick and dying churches that seldom does much but kill off what little remaining orthodoxy of faith and practice remains as vestige of an often vibrant past.  No matter what is posited by Bass and others, the vitality of Christianity still lies with so-called conservative churches -- that is, those serious about Scripture, doctrine, and piety. 

Over my own short life (just shy of 60 years) I have heard from all sorts and kinds of people purporting to speak theologically about the death of God or, at least, the death of Christianity.  In fact, one of them, whose recommendation on the back of Bass' latest book Christianity After Religion, is was the chief architect of the death of God theology now either dead and done itself or morphed into what Bass and others are now hawking (Harvey Cox in the 1960s).  I will admit that I once feared these statistics and listened to the predictors of Christianity's death.  Interestingly, I thought the answer lie with the opposite of the prescriptions being offered by most commentators today.  I thought liturgical renewal by recovering of the ancient forms and theological renewal by refreshed confidence and teaching of the old Confessions was the key to revitalization.  But, who am I?

Now that I am more at the end than the beginning of my active life as a Pastor, I am less and less concerned by the doomsday prophets and less and less enamored of their insistent pleas to change or die.  Church bodies are born and die.  It is a fact.  We are seeing the slow death of once great churches like the Episcopal Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America largely because they have listened to the critics and drunk from the grape kool-aid of modernism, moral relativism, and distance from Scripture and confession.  Even though they lay hold to the liturgical tradition, they do not have confidence in the pericopes they read or the old Gospel once preached and have married a rather traditional worship life with a radical preaching of law as Gospel, works in place of dogma, and social justice as the only relevant truth left to us.

My own LCMS may die.  The Church will not.  Neither will it be reborn as substantially different from what it is.  Where the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments administered according to Christ's institution and command, there is the Church -- because, as God declares, there is God and His grace.  Apart from these means of grace, there is no church.  Period.  We cannot reinvent the Church.  We have neither the authority nor the power.  We cannot reinvigorate the Church.  We have neither the authority nor the power.  All that we can do is to be faithful to the Word and Sacraments.  In this faithfulness, God has promised to work (though we seldom are confident that His promise, in this regard, is sure).  Anything other than the Word and Sacraments and that group which is reborn will be anything but the Church.  It may be relevant.  It may grow.  It may be vigorous.  It may be entertaining.  It may put the Church to shame in its good works.  But it is not the Church and it will eventually die, withered from being cut off from the vine just as the people in it will die without the life-giving grace of God delivered only where His Word is rightly preached and His Sacraments faithfully administered according to His intent.  Works do not give birth to faith.  Faith produced works.  It is this that Bass and others seem most to forget.

Do not hear me wrong.  I do not excuse or justify the laissez faire attitude of some within Christendom.  We cannot sit on our orthodoxy as if it were a comfortable couch and watch the world go by.  We are here to engage the world.  We all agree to that.  The conflict lies when we begin asking with what are we to engage the world.  The means of grace are the only tools and currency of the Kingdom -- to grow the Church and to engage the world.  Where this life-giving Word is preached and the Sacraments the center of life and piety, a rich and sumptuous life of mercy, service, and good works will demonstrate that the Word is not a treasure to be kept and hidden but the working vehicle of grace that enable us to love as Christ has loved us.

BTW you can read one similar critique of Bass from this source.


Anonymous said...

Change or die.

Okay, let's assume there is a grain of truth in there.

Now, what should we change, aka get rid of, so we don't die.

That is the big question. Not all change is good.

We could greatly reduce to content of what we teach our kids. That would be a change. Would it stave off death?

We could have far fewer children. Oh, yeah we did that. And does that stave off death? Oops, no it doesn't. It reduces our numbers which also reduces the number of people we are teaching and reaching and in turn reduces those being trained as workers with us.

We could send fewer of the children we have to our parochial schools where they will hear God's word. That would be a change. Oh yeah, we did that.

We did change. Just not for the better.

Janis Williams said...

The Post-Modern/Emergents are just a rehash of 19th/20th century liberalism with trendy glasses, hair, and jeans. (They also have 'new' words and definitions of the old words they use.).

You cannot change the Faith once delivered to the saints. Yes, there are cultural quirks in every nation's churches. There certainly are lots of non-Biblical ideas, practices and peccadillos in the American church. However, God has never been wrong, contrary to the thoughts of talkers like D.B. Bass.

If she were only critiquing the Church's cultural baggage, there would be a reason to listen. Asking the Church to essentially drop the Gospel in favor of social justice ... no.

The Church will never die. We have the promise of the Living God on that. Let those of us who are alive in Christ act that way.

Andy Carlson said...

To which is say "right on target".

I thought our summary clarifies the reason for our "laziness of engagement"...that we have not been given, by our leadership (of those of us in the pews) the tools with which to actively engage the larger community of man in the discussion of our faith and source of our hope...it is not about what we are against, it is all about what we are for....lets carry our banner to lead, not our sword to kill and destroy individuals (the enemy yes, the person no).
Your comment:

"We cannot sit on our orthodoxy as if it were a comfortable couch and watch the world go by. We are here to engage the world. We all agree to that. The conflict lies when we begin asking with what are we to engage the world."

We have (had) been comfortable..and detached....now were are removed and persecuted..because of our comfortable detachment....the battle has been brought to our doorstep....rather than our leading the world beyond the doors of the Sanctuary...