Sunday, April 23, 2023

The impact of the world on us. . .

While the great temptation is to see the cultural changes around us as things that are happening out there somewhere, the reality is that they are deeply involved in what happens at home and in the Church.  We are not insular communities but the home and the Church have leaks in just as we leak out into the world around us.  Whether we admit it or not, the changes in sexuality, marriage, family, privacy, feminism, screens, and such have and continue to have great impact on our doctrine as well as our life together.

Abortion and its related issues of the sacredness of life, the morality of how life begins and ends, the value attached to that life, and the particular value of the child have profoundly affected us.  Look at the numbers alone.  Baptisms, confirmations, and actual funerals are down.  This is not accidental.  There are congregations where a baptism is a rarity -- even the baptism of a child.  Are you telling me that has little or no affect on the place of baptism in the life of those assembled or in the Church?  The drop in youth confirmations is related to the lower numbers of baptism but it is also related to the mobility of our people and the multiplication of places where people have the opportunity to drop out, disappear, or jump ship.  Seeing one or no candidates for confirmation in the life of a congregation has a profound affect not only on the place of this rite but their view of themselves and their future.  The increasing numbers of deaths without services planned or private services in a funeral home alone has and continues to have a major impact on the congregation as well as the family.  Children who no longer live in the area where their parents live and who no longer attend the same or any church come home to arrange a burial and get back to their lives, ignoring or oblivious to the healing power of the funeral as people gather not simply to acknowledge the death but to confess the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

The heavy weight of culture is felt all over the place when it comes to the role of women in the Church.  When I first began my time as a Pastor, it was common and even ordinary to have most wives and mothers not work outside the home or work only part-time.  It has turned around until the stay at home mom or the one working limited hours is the oddity.  While I have no real quibble with the increased role of women in the life of the congregation, I cannot but notice that it has come with a cost -- men are reluctant leaders and in many congregations have disappeared from leadership roles except where the offices require males only.  While some will say this is a result of changes in the way the church has viewed offices and authority, the influence bearing upon these changes has not been Scripture or our history but the press of culture.  It becomes difficult for us to find inoffensive ways to say where and why men alone can serve (whether as pastors or parish offices) and so we tend not to say anything much at all -- embarrassed or confused about how to say it without making us sound positively medieval.  Of course, all of this is a result of the loss of the sense of order that God reflected over His creation, a rejection of that order by many, and a refusal to see vocation for what it is.  Submission to anyone or anything is hard to find in our culture of self-expression.

The digital imprint of life has surely affected how we see even the most central aspects of our life together.  The mere idea that an online gathering or a virtual communion might substitute for the personal assembly of a people together in the same place, hearing the same Word, confessing the same faith, and receiving the same Eucharist reflects the deep impact of the screen on worship.  We will continue to reap the effects of the pandemic as it hastened our foray into a digital parish life long after we have forgotten masks and distancing.  How was it possible that we so quickly gave consideration to and put into practice these impersonal means of worship and communion?  How did we give them legitimacy so fast that now they are the norms of our parish lives along with the in person assemblies?  When did online numbers become statistics relevant to the health of our congregations as well as the count of those present on Sunday or any other day the Eucharist is offered?  The theology was and is affected by the routines of a life that is centered on a screen for work, shopping, play, and entertainment.

I certainly do not have all the answers here but I find it disconcerting that even a church body as conservative and staid as Missouri lives with the impact of culture and seems to have gotten somewhat accustomed to it all.  What we do not notice, we will not reject -- that is always the way error comes into the life of the Church.  It is always a back or side door and never the front door which we have well guarded.  No, we will have to redouble our efforts at catechesis to maintain where we are and some of what we have lost we may never recover.  By catechesis here, I am not strictly talking about Bible study but about what the Scriptures say and how it relates to what is happening around us.  We cannot simply talk about that Scripture says unless we are also willing to apply it to our individual lives in Christ and our life together as the Church.

Some will see bogeymen everywhere.  The watchdogs of the internet are good at pointing out problems.  I know.  I am one of them.  But we must not react wildly to everything or we will accomplish nothing.  We must meet the challenges before us as they come with a careful and reasoned response based not upon opinion or fear but upon the solid Word of God and the creeds and confessions of those who went before us.  We must not retreat from the confrontation or we will lose our identity as salt and light in the world.  We must not become our enemies and react with vitriol, bitterness, and anger or our voices will not be heard in the world nor will those within our churches continue to listen.  Pastors and church leaders will need to be fervent in prayer along side the people in our pews and diligent.  For the urgency is not that the Church will die unless we save it but that we and those within our care may be lost to the Church unless we heed the call and take up the cause of Christ crucified and risen.

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