28 April 2009

A Postmodern take on the "Post Church" idea

(This comes forth from being at my district's convention this past weekend and hearing the various speakers - of note being the Blue Ribbon Task ___________ on Structure and also Dr. Robert Newton speak to the importance of mission as hermeneutical key in a Post-Church society)

One of the hip and hep ideas amongst the muckity-mucks of theology today is that we are entering into a "Post-Church" era. This idea basically says that back in the good old days a few decades ago, we were a "Churched" society - that the Church was respected, that pastors were by virtue of being pastors cultural movers and shakers, and that there was an innate draw of people towards the Church. Now, however, they would say that this is not the case - we have moved Post-Church, and the Church doesn't have it's immediate cultural impact or power. And from there, the "and this is what we must do about it" vary in great detail based upon who is giving it.

What will follow is a "Postmodern" take on this idea using a Foucaulian style analysis of the situation. I suppose if I were so inclined, I could make this very scholarly, but I won't. This is a few minutes before heading into the office - but just see what you think. Perhaps one should view this as a rough intellectual draft.

1 - Church and Post Church Era itself.

I find that I am dubious of the distinction between the Church and the Post Church Era - at least in any fashion that tries to say that we have been in a "Church" centered era for the past 100 years. A simple look at the arts will demonstrate that Christianity has been moving further and further from the center. When religious material is treated in the last Century's art, it generally is from a dismissive or mocking approach. In literature, what religious stand do the characters ever take? And Television? It says something when the most strongly "Christian" characters on TV are on the Simpsons. (Actually, there are some interesting studies on how Christianity is used on the Simpsons in a sympathetic light - which is ironic given the furor that the Simpsons caused when it first aired amongst the moralists.)

I would submit that we are not seeing a change in culture in the past few centuries, but rather those in the Church are realizing that some of their own cultural assumptions are not in fact true. Consider your own congregation. The faithful assume that they should be at Church, and lament when people don't regularly attend. They don't understand how people could not attend. The assumption is that of course you go to Church on Sunday. That has been the standard assumption - but it's never been true in this Country. In fact, as the stats here from Christianity Today (and Gallup) demonstrate, even in the good old days, the peak attendance was 49%.

If less than half of people do something, and we assume that "everyone" does it as a matter of course, and then we understand that not everyone does - this does not denote a cultural change. This is merely folks in the Church coming to grips with reality.

The idea of moving into a Post-Church era is really nothing more than abandoning the egotistical myth of the Church's modern importance. It is not a cultural change - things have been as they have been. Objectively, there is no change - it's only a change as viewed from an internal, subjective position. So why then, is this couched in terms of cultural change?

2 - The Changing World = a Need for Change

We have seen that a variety of plans and responses to the objectively false idea of entering a "Post-Church" era have been presented. The reason for this is one that is rather simple. If a change is going to happen, then the person implementing the change gathers power. Structures and organizations will be modified, all in the name of meeting the current challenge, which tend to place power in the hands of the person making the change.

One can only get a change approved provided that there is some impetus for that change. If things culturally remain as they are - there is no need for change. But, if we are presented with a spectacular change in society, the fear of that change gives a person's call for change political weight.

If you can convince people that the world is changing, then you can convince them to accept your changes which localize power in you. It doesn't matter whether or not the world actually is changing, as long as you convince them.

Now, before charges of a lack of charity are leveled against me - this is not to insinuate that people calling for various changes in the Church are deviously distorting the truth - they may themselves be caught in subjective views of reality and actually think that massive changes are occurring. We do live in a time in American society where there is quite a bit of fear being tossed around - so it is no surprise that this as a matter of course sloshes into the Church. Nevertheless it can be used to a person's advantage.

3 - The Various Plans

Consider the various plans that have been introduced in the LCMS that are needed as a result of the "Changing" Society. You will note that they are introduced to focus power in the hands of the people proposing the Change.

A - Synodical Restructuring. The reason given is that times are changing. The solution - give more central power to the Synod. Who proposes this? A Synodical task force.

B - Missio Dei. Dr. Newton, a Missiologist, notes that we must respond to the Post Church era with a more mission focused approach. This increases the focus on his speciality. Moreover, it is latched onto by Synod. Synod at large has been the traditional clearing house for missions. If more Church work is viewed as mission, it falls more and more under Synodical purview.

C - Ablaze Congregational Planting. The planting of congregations had been an organic thing, where congregations would give birth to other congregations. Now (at least in Oklahoma), there is structured planning on the district level about where to place congregations and district funds. This makes the district vital to the planting of congregations, where before, if anything, it was simply a clearing house for funds and a place for helping to find a pastor.

D - SMPP. Note that the Seminaries were involved in this, just as much as the Synodical higher-ups. With the various lay ministry practices in each district, control of who gets ordained/licensed was decentralized. Both the Seminaries and the Synod hierarchy acquired more control via SMPP.

There are more and more that we could look at, but this will suffice for now. And note - this is not "evil" necessarily. If you know something is not true, but use it to acquire power - that is morally wicked. If you act in ignorance or your own fear, it's just simple reason to try to acquire more control to yourself so that you can face the changes in the way that you see fit.

4 - Conclusion.

So, what am I trying to say with this? Simply this - there has been a lot of focus on responding to our ever changing society. The amount of change is over blown. Things aren't as wild as they seem. Also, people will take advantage of the idea of needing to respond to change in order to acquire power - so pay attention to who gains power when a change in Church practice/structure/organization/attitude is presented.


WM Cwirla said...

Not so sure things aren't a-changing. Check out the ARIS 2008 survey. The place of the church has certainly shifted from center to periphery, both geographically and in the piety of the people. We remain "spiritual" though we are not necessarily "religious" in a formal and institutional sense.

The thesis that a changing world needs a changing church needs to be analyzed. I agree that this is a vast playground for ecclesiastical mischief and an opportunity to feather one's own nest. Government is crisis management these days. Control is always at the heart of the matter.

The church is always wrapped in some sort of institutional shell. The question on the table is what sort of institutional shell best serves the Gospel it contains. Treasure in earthen vessels. That sort of thing.

Nicely provocative post.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Even with the ARIS survey, we aren't talking about an everyone -> no one shift. . . we are talking a tenth of society changing. . . which is significant, but this is part of the typical changes we have been seeing for the past 100 years at least, not something bizarre and new.

Paul McCain said...

I think what we need to be keenly mindful is that whereas in previous generations there was a general sense of the Church, and some degree of cultural awareness of the "basics" of Christianity, this can no longer be assumed or taken for granted.

This does not mean we simply give up on inculcating proper understandings, but we can't assume any longer *anything* we think is "commonly known" is commonly known.

That's my .02 on the talk of "post-Church" culture.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Maybe then this is something generational - but having gone to public schools even for a bit in the late 80s, it was pretty clear that not everyone went to Church or even cared. Maybe we've just been too insulated among ourselves.

Paul McCain said...

Eric: bingo.

The Rev. BT Ball said...

What, you mean attending LCMS schools from age 5-27 made me insulated? My wife, who is from rural Montana, called it something else when I first met her.

It is true that when the President of our Republic quotes the Bible or at least gives a paraphrase in one of his sermons/speeches that many, many citizens have no idea that such words are not original to him/his teleprompter.

When Lincoln spoke about a house divided against itself not being able to stand, those on the receiving end certainly knew he was using the Scripture. If Obama said those words today in one of his proclamations I'd imagine that the few who recognized the words would think he was quoting Lincoln.

So back to the need for confessional, classical Lutheran schools, which now even my wife understands.