Tuesday, February 08, 2005

"One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic"

I am not a great fan of megachurches or of the "church growth" movement. And I've raised various objections. Now I've run across a person (whom I presume to be a Presbyterian) who says in a precise and witty way some of what I feel.

The internet is a fascinating reality: A brief time cruising just the blogs easily gives one the vision of the sum of human wisdom’s being available at the touch of a few keystrokes. (Yes, I spent much more time following “threads” and links than was reasonable, and I’m trying to justify my expenditure of time!)

Michael Spencer (who is the Internet Monk) reprinted an essay (here, scroll down to the entry for July 21, 2004) by R. C. Sproul, Jr., “Sophisticated Lady,” (from Tabletalk, June 2004, Ligonier Ministries, pp. 60-61) in which this preacher-teacher raises the question of whether the modern (or post-modern) “growth” church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” – and answers with a grieved “no.” The essay is short and worth reading, and I heartily recommend the few minutes it will take to read. (Thanks to Michael Spencer, whom I don’t know, for posting it.) But because there are some simply wonderful formulations, and because I enjoy nothing better than careful rhetoric, and because I think his critique is so marvelously “evangelical-catholic”, I’ll outline and quote here.

Sproul points out that the Church is in danger of losing her soul by adapting itself to the ways of the world in “selling” herself and judging her success by worldly measures of success. He illustrates by reference to “Oakmont Family Worship Center.” While there are “no oaks, no mountains, few families (that is, the families all split and go their separate ways as soon as they enter [in order to participate in various programs]), no worship, and precious little center,” there is a wide array of “offerings” that fit the demographics of the population Oakmont seeks to attract: a gym, twelve-step programs, youth/women/men/single groups, and a coffee bar “right in the narthex, I mean, the ‘greeting center.’”

Sproul then goes on to decry such church-growth plants: Oakmont is not one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Test what he says against your experience and your home congregation’s “lifestyle.” If they resonate, you may want to buy some sackcloth and practice prophecy.

I'll let Rev. Sproul speak for himself, except for the boldface, which I've added.

“It is not one because unlike the true church, its being isn’t centered on the work of Christ. … It is the first church of what’s happening now, and thus is untethered from the church in history.”

“Neither, of course is the church holy. It not only is not set apart, but labors diligently to mimic the world. It is unholy on purpose, because its reason for being is pleasing the lost, rather than the One who finds the lost. … The church begins with the assumption that I can be whatever it wishes and concludes by wishing to be just like the world.”

"The prototypical Oakmont is not catholic either. Not only does it begin with a marketing strategy, but that marketing strategy is to reach a particular niche (virtually always yuppies, not coincidentally). … Its vision of the church extends only as broadly as the demographic it is seeking.”

"Worst of all, Oakmont is not apostolic. It rejects not only the faith once delivered unto the saints, but likewise it rejects the messengers who delivered that faith. It takes its cues from modern-day church growth gurus, who, in turn, take their cues from the madmen of Madison Avenue. Oakmont isn’t concerned with what the apostles said because they make their decisions based on what the market says. And one thing the market cannot bear is sound, old, demanding doctrine. When demographics divide, that’s good marketing. But when doctrine divides, that bad marketing.”

“[This worldview] in the church, then, not only guts the church of her defining marks but givers her a new identity. Now she is no longer the bride of Christ, but a painted lady. When the church hustles the world, it becomes a worldly hustler.”

He goes on to warn the church: “When the church plays to consumers, she will find herself consumed by the One who is a consuming fire.”

Thus R. C. Sproul.

I am eager to compare this criticism of the Church with Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” It has been decades since I read Letters and Papers from Prison, and so I want to see the new translation and think it through again. But it seems to me that Bonhoeffer, like Sproul, was (re)calling the Church to her distinctive identity. Religion comprises all those trappings that we acquire and don when we try to be our own gods or define god or make our own “godlike” way. It is an attempt to manipulate – both God and humanity. To be religionless, for Bonhoeffer, could not have meant leaving behind the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity – but rather to identify those in the journey of following Jesus.

On the basis of my very limited contact with both the writers, I think they work toward the same point – to make known to the Church how she is falling prey to false gods, gods that have been created and revealed by the world on the world’s terms. While the world is the Lord’s, until the final consummation, it remains world over against the Church (the Body of Christ). It must be called to account, to repentance, to faith – and not mistakenly (i.e., sinfully) allowed to shape that account, that repentance, that purported faith on its own terms. Oakmont is religion, regardless of the good intentions of her founders and movers and shakers. And Sproul is right to name it.

Incidentally, I think Hauerwas might appreciate this description, too. In fact, it sounds a little like him. (See why I was taken with this “read”?)

The Lord’s peace, not as the world gives peace, sustain you.

10 comments:

RevDrWAJ said...

I read with interest the reflections of Dwight P regarding "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostollic". While I agree with most of what was opined, I would like to suggest a slightly different perspective.

It was said, "Sproul points out that the Church in in dager of losing her sould by adapting itself (sic) to the ways of the world in selling herself and judging her success by worldly measures of success." While I have no quarrel with that statement, it does seem to me that an Incarnational Church must always struggle with precisely that tension. I suggest that from the perspective of effective communication, the Church has endangered herself of losing her voice.

One of the most important and elementary axioms of communication is that meaning resides in people, not in things (including words). Nearly 30 years of experience has taught me that we now have fully two generations, and are well on our way to the third, of people who are religiously illiterate. That is not to say that they are not religious nor is it to say that they are not spiritual for in reality they are often both. It is certainly not to say that they are bad but that they are sinners just as are we all. It is to say that they are manifestly unchristian. Being unchristian, they are strangers, sojourners, who wander into and out of our churches, our worship services, and social services, and our lives without ever "hearing" the graceful word of a loving One who seeks to welcome them home. They know neither our verbal nor our non-verbal language. They are like those who self-consciously enter a gathering of people 10 minutes late for the meeting and unable to enter unobserved into the back of the room. It is precisely that discomfort which often keeps them on the sidewalk outside or takes them to the park on Sunday morning.

Although I do not endorse the church growth movemnt with all of us permutations, I do applaud their efforts to try to learn the language of the stranger, to learn how the stranger gives meaning, and then attempts to enter into a relationship in which communication is possible. Perhaps the Church, would do well to learn and implement some of the basic theories of interpersonal communication not to mimic the world, but to be understood more fully by the world.

I, for one, believe that "One", "Holy", "Catholic", and "Apostolic" are not yet outside of our grasp. They don't have to be outside the grasp of the sojourners either.

Dash said...

You just HAD to work this into your prayers tonight, didn't you, brother!

Dwight P. said...

I wholeheartedly agree that the Church must speak in the vernacular. (I think the Constitution on the Church that issued from Vatican II beautifully expounded this principle and its basis.) We live in the midst of a culture, a context, and we do not offer a non-contexualized message. That latter issue is the gnostic heresy -- bodiless, timeless, godless.

But the critical factor is that the culture may (indeed, must) provide the context and perhaps even much of the vocabulary of proclamation, but it does not and cannot and should not provide the content of the proclamation. And that is where the church growth and related movements err -- in ways pithily summarized by Rev. Sproul, and diagnosed more specifically by you. Parker Palmer makes a similar point in his book on welcoming the stranger (the title of which escapes me right now): The Church is called to provide space for the observer, the unbeliever, the seeker, the visitor. But the Church does not re-invent herself to meet the worldview or the expectations of the visitor. Ultimately, the visitor decides that this is for or not for her -- and if for, must be initiated into the experience and culture called "Church."

The Church is, at that level, counter-cultural as regards the wider social context within which she resides. Christians are, in the memorable phrase of now-Bishop Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, "resident aliens" in the world around them. That doesn't mean that the Church is loaded with arcana and continues to bar the doors before celebrating the mysteries (at least, literally) and lives in holy isolation from the rest of society. But it does mean that the Church takes seriously her life-or-death mission to maintain the integrity of her proclamation and life.

The Church has erred glaringly by allowing her members to sink into Biblical illiteracy. And because of the length of time over which this is happening, even the leaders of the Church are unacquainted with the Biblical story, which alone provides the content for the message. Those leaders, then, misperceive their mission as that of simply gathering in people for the sake of gathering them around the "name of Jesus," without quite understanding that this is the meaning neither of "ecclesia" nor of "the name of Jesus."

Bonhoeffer speaks of reducing the gospel to a phrase or a principle and blasts this as "cheap grace." Well, that is even more the case now. "Jesus loves you just as you are" is neither a formal nor a sufficient explication of the Gospel. Unless that is rooted firmly in the Scriptures of both Old and New Testament, it is a relatively bland, meaningless, and even heretical statement. (Supposedly, Karl Barth once summarized his "Church Dogmatics" by admiring the American Sunday-School song, "Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so." Note that that is much different from the more recent recension of the song. It points to both content and epistemelogical content. Jesus' love is interpreted in terms of the Bible.)

The Church has backslid into a situation where for many "gospel" is any bit of news or conversation that makes me feel free from something or other. That is not only cheap grace, it is pathetic psychology. There is a reason that, balancing the "church growth" place, the largest growing segments of the Christian Church in America are those which exercise some rigor as regards teaching and living.

Clearly, this is a "hot button" issue for me. So thank you, brother or sister, for your comments. They provide and allow me to add a helpful clarification to my post. And, yes, dear Sr. Dash, of course I had to work this into my prayers for Ash Wednesday. It's always in my prayers!

Anonymous said...

Does the following quote from "Resident Aliens" speak to this discussion?:

"The coming of Christ has cosmic implications. He has changed the course of things. So the theological task is not merely the interpretive matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian's job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel." (page 24)

RAR

Dwight P. said...

I think so ... .

You know, Br.RAR, there are times with Hauerwas and Willimon say things that sound right to me, but that I couldn't explain to someone else (and I try to read a lot of both of them). The passage you cite is one that I regularly recall and don't know that I get. (When I return to the book, it makes sense, but on it's own, it's beyond me.) Nevertheless, I think there's something there.

The man I'll study Bonhoeffer with next month believes that Hauerwas and Willimon would have the Christian church withdraw from the world -- sort of like radical Amish or Trappists. But that simply proves that he hasn't read them.

The Church is called to radical involvement with the world -- to partake in God's saving grace to the world -- by being itself and demonstrating what it is to live the saved life. It becomes an outpost, a colony; it is not a cloister.

But whether that is making the world credible to God, I don't know.

Can you help me by offering your interpretation?

Dwight P. said...

I think so ... .

You know, Br.RAR, there are times with Hauerwas and Willimon say things that sound right to me, but that I couldn't explain to someone else (and I try to read a lot of both of them). The passage you cite is one that I regularly recall and don't know that I get. (When I return to the book, it makes sense, but on it's own, it's beyond me.) Nevertheless, I think there's something there.

The man I'll study Bonhoeffer with next month believes that Hauerwas and Willimon would have the Christian church withdraw from the world -- sort of like radical Amish or Trappists. But that simply proves that he hasn't read them.

The Church is called to radical involvement with the world -- to partake in God's saving grace to the world -- by being itself and demonstrating what it is to live the saved life. It becomes an outpost, a colony; it is not a cloister.

But whether that is making the world credible to God, I don't know.

Can you help me by offering your interpretation?

RevDrWAJ said...

Piety check for DwightP. Mark Oldenburg says, "First, I often use the term (i.e. Piety) to refer to an unexamined, pre, sub-, and super-rational understanding of God and our life of Fatith. That is, if someone wakes you up at 3 a.m. and asks you what God is like, what you answer before you are fully ocnscious is a goo clue to your piety." (Stjerna & Schramm, 2004, p.50). It seems to me that it is not our liturgy to make the world credible to God. It is our liturgy to faithfully find ways to facilitate an interpersonal conversation between the Incarnate God and the world. The challenge is upon "faithfully". How does the Church speak verbally and nonverbally in such a fashion that the "Logos" is located at the very point of the fusion of horizons? (to borrow from Gadamer).

Anonymous said...

Shoot, Brother, I thought you'd help me make sense of the Willimon/Hauerwas quote! It sounds good and I resonate with it but I can't explain, in nuts and bolts terms, what it means to "...make the world credible to the gospel." I suspect it has something to do with that business you speak of wherein we are called speak (and live) the gospel rather than talking about the gospel. It seems to me that we (i.e. the Church) should endeavor mightily to communicate effectively with "the world" with the goal of "gospel-izing" the world, not with the goal of being "relevant" or of attracting large crowds.

RAR

Dwight P. said...

OK, I've pulled Resident Aliens from the shelf and I'm going to try to make sense of that passage. (You don't happen to have a page number, do you, Br.RAR? It would help me get the quote quickly so I can examine content.) I've heard and read Hauerwas say the same thing several times, and I've always skipped over it to the rest of his argument/s. I guess I have to take seriously.

I think we're on similar senses of what he means. If the church is to be a colony in the midst of the "world" (which is defined as that which is outside the community of the Gospel -- though not outside the Gospel's call and promise), its task is to be true to itself and to serve as leavening for the transformation of the world into a Gospel community. That would make the "world" no longer world (in Hauerwas' usage), which would align the world with the Gospel. Does the word "credible" carry such meaning?

I don't know for sure.
Peace,
D

nope said...

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Melissa K. W.
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