Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Church Inside Church

Now and then folks who visit this weblog express concern about the relevance of the contemporary church.

Not long ago someone posted this expression of frustration:

"I hate to say it, but it's beginning to make me wonder about the importance of church. I realize that's probably not the best thing to say on this blog, but seeing what I see at CDM and then hearing what I hear in church... something doesn't mesh. "

Lots of people seem to feel this way or feel something akin to this sentiment.

I've thought quite a bit about the church and the city over the past thirty-plus years.

Critics have a lot to say to the organized church. And, I believe it is true that if the church were more "on message," poverty would not be the challenge to the nation that it currently is today. Church members would be more attentive to the realities facing "the poor." As a result, I expect public policy makers would be more responsive to the needs of low-income people and their families.

We've moved through about twenty-five years in which the church's strategy has been defined largely by what I would call "consumer priorities." In other words, how does a church discover what prospective members are looking for in a church? Then, how does a church move toward meeting the expectations of these consumers of religion? Rather than shaping the perspective and values of potential adherents, churches have been shaped by this special class of American consumers.

People today appear restless and unsatisfied with such an approach (even my analysis here sounds as if it is defined by consumer needs and wishes, doesn't it?)

Bottom line: Growing numbers of people who consider themselves Christians are not satisfied with typical church life and mission. There is a growing sense, informed by a different kind of spirituality that involves a commitment to compassion and seeking justice, that there has to be more to a public life of faith than this.

What's a person to do who finds himself or herself a member of a church with little or no interest in addressing the real and pressing needs of urban areas like Dallas?

I suppose there are at least three options.

You could simple drop out of church life and live out your faith largely in isolation from those who continue in the organized church. Some who opt for this approach most likely will find themselves gravitating toward some small group expression of spiritual life. Not a bad alternative for some disenchanted people. However, most who are in churches today, no matter how dissatisfied, will not find this idea particularly appealing.

You could join with others of like mind to establish a new congregation. For some, this will make a lot of sense. There are definite advantages to the formation of new groups, organized around new priorities and visions. Still, most will find this option more challenging than they are prepared to address.

The final option seems most reasonable for most frustrated church folks. Seek out persons like yourself who are serious about faith and living it out in the real world among people who are in need and broken by the pain of poverty. Form an "action group" or a "mission cell" that creates an inside accountability for you and others like you. Pursue your mission from within the church where you currently attend. Be prepared to "stir things up" in as civil a manner as possible. Begin meeting as a small group to strengthen your resolve and to plan your action steps to move toward need, as well as the rich assets to be found among "the poor."

Some people will need to find a new church to attend. But, that doesn't work for most people. And, once inside, folks find that no church is perfect!

If you find yourself a part of a committed group of believers concerned about poverty, justice and the establishment of a genuine community with and among low-income, inner city Dallas residents, give me a headsup. I think I have something concrete for you to consider.


Steve Jr. said...

I blogged about the changes taking place in American "church mentality" here.

I think there's a growing generation of Christians in North America who are sick of the status quo, and are committed to mission and justice (in fact, the two are not and should not be separated).

Many young Christians today agree with the biblical writer James and with the king in the 2005 blockbuster "Kingdom of Heaven," who said, "holiness is right action and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves."

For myself and many other young people I know, our call is not to work tirelessly to transform the church from the inside (many, many people will be called to do that). Our call is to go join the radical things God is doing in our cities and let that witness and example bring about transformation within the church at large.

Jason Coriell said...

I am one those unsatisfied with typical church life and mission. I appreciate your expression, "consumer priorities." It helps further my understanding of the contrast between where we are and where we need to be going. I feel called to work from the inside (though I lack a good understanding of how). I appreciate your blog because it inspires me to keep yearning, and more importantly, praying for God to reshape me and my congregational family.

Larry James said...

Steve and Jason, keep on walking and pushing and battling. The struggle produces a magic that can be impossible to explain, but you know it when you see it breaking out.

Jason Coriell said...

I appreciate your encouragement.