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The Demise of the Institutional Church

The Diminishing of the Institutional Church   

    Something is going on in this modern world of ours, something we, on first thought, might consider discouraging: churches are emptier than when I began preaching. 

    I know who is to blame: Jesus.

    A couple of recent front page newspaper stories offer the clue. For one, the pastor of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Newtown CT was chastised by that denomination's leadership for participating in a prayer service for the families and victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.  One of the little children belonged to that Lutheran Church.  Two belonged to the Methodist Church, which I pastored for one year in 1954-1955.  The Lutheran's "error" in the eyes of his denomination's keepers of doctrinal purity was that he prayed with Jews, Bahais, and Muslims who did not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Said leaders this week recanted their scolding as public opinion against them mounted.

    Exclusivity in the name of Jesus really puts off a generation that embraces inclusivity... which, the latter, inclusivity, in my view is an exact reflection of Jesus, from whom the world learned it, to embrace all sorts and conditions of humankind without respect to religious conviction, among the several identities that continue to divide us.  Missouri Synod Lutherans consider themselves "people of the Book," meaning the Bible.  They should know well, therefore, that the self-righteousness manifest in the condemnation of Newtown interfaith relations puts them in the category of the one group that really got Jesus' dander up, the Pharisees, the masters of self-righteous hypocrisy.  Or think about that Galilean rabbi's version of the heavenly banquet feast, where people from every quadrant of the compass, not just the Hebraic mid-east, will gather with the patriarchs of old.

    Another headline in the newspapers recently featured Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. Documents have come into view exposing his failed leadership of the archdiocese in the treatment of pedophile priests.  Time and again the guilty priests were not reported to civil authorities, but were reassigned to other parishes, some of them in other states and other countries. That is, the cardinal, who was recently censured by his successor, put (what he thought to be) the well-being of the institutional church ahead of the well-being of children. 

    Choosing your own welfare over that of those whom you are entrusted to protect and guide really puts off a generation that has heard the pulpit preach long and often on how Jesus cherishes children and woe to him who would cause one of them to stumble, how it would be better for him to have a millstone strung around his neck and be thrown into the sea than to desecrate young lives.  Picture that, a legion of turned-around collars also sporting cement wheels around their necks, some with miters on their pates.  The Galilean rabbi tells the cardinal and all the others that the little ones have guardian angels at the throne of heaven, advocates who get instant attention from God. Beware, defilers of childhood's innocence! 

    The Roman Catholic Church in the U. S. - once the envy of mainline Protestant churches, like the one I served for a lifetime, for their full churches all Sunday morning long, and we did not match by half those whose loyalty was to Rome - has witnessed a dramatic decline in weekly observance of the Mass. Which is what happens when the charge of hypocrisy sticks, however unfair it may be to tarnish the whole priesthood with that stain. 

    Methodism?  Forget it. We've been racing downhill for the past half century. Symptomatic of that decline is a church building in New Britain CT, a massive structure that in the 1950's housed a bustling congregation.  Barbara reports that when she was a teenager in Bristol's Prospect Methodist Church the youth fellowship thought of a Sunday night meeting with the youth of New Britain as something akin to a Roman holiday.  That church building still stands but in place of Wesleyan songs the auditorium resounds with dramatic productions, thanks to its appropriation by civil authorities when the congregation folded.  Methodist bishops never engaged in cover-ups of abuse of children.  Can't go there to explain the denomination's demise.  It's something I've thought about a good deal.  I meet former Methodists everywhere.  Our denomination did a terrific job of preparing a generation for the post-World War II blossoming of American society, especially the encouragement (as if a necessity!) of higher education.  It appears to me that those "former" Methodists, who took that advice, have graduated from Methodism and an ecclesiastical leadership that no longer speaks to them or for them.  My denomination suffers not from a failure of enthusiasm but from an absence of an intelligent message and messenger grappling with the issues its "graduates" face.  We (I mean clergy mostly) have been left behind.

    I searched for a red-letter explanation for this diminution of the denomination of my childhood and career.  The best I could come up with has to do with not being welcomed and shaking the dust off your feet... as the Galilean rabbi's advice that has guided once-upon-a-time-but-no-longer Methodists.

    Many of the church drop-outs, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, or whatever, have not opted for another brand of Christianity.  When asked for their religious identification, they are apt to reply, "None." Typical is the amplification of this non-affiliation I hear voiced frequently on TV talking head programs and in friendly conversations: "I am religious; I just don't believe in the institutional church."

    Which brings me to me.  I'm ten years out of the harness of the professional pastorate.  I still attend church just about every Sunday.  But I confess I spend the sacred hour of worship mostly fuming. Sure, I am a critical S. O. B.  (There, I beat you to it!).  I quarrel silently in my mind with the preacher: why don't they teach seminarians how to compose public prayer? why doesn't he stand in the pulpit where I can see and hear him? what is this damnable urge to experiment with form? isn't she aware that stories like that from the Internet are hokey? why does he fill his orations with the sound of tears instead of just telling it directly and simply? We had found a church where such thoughts intruded infrequently, but a new pastor brought unwelcome changes in both style and substance.  I do keep hoping, but I am not finding.  Why don't I just give up?

    Because I do believe Jesus has worthy uses for the institutional church. Two, above all else:

    To get the message out, about Jesus and to do it accurately and appealingly.  Which creates a need for people educated and certified to represent Jesus.  Which creates a need for seminaries and professors and ordaining agencies, all of which costs, and where will the money come from to sustain such endeavors?  Someone needs to maintain theological libraries. Someone needs to set standards. Unregulated theology would be wilder than unregulated banking.   

    There's a second reason for the church's being, and it's related to the first: to prepare the next generation to, in its turn, "standup, stand up for Jesus."  Yes, children, the little ones about whom Jesus had so much to say, lifting them up and claiming (as hard as it may be to think it when dealing with a cranky two year old) that they are the embodiment of the kingdom of heaven.  Sunday schools, confirmation classes, youth fellowships: God help us, they are a necessity, not just another pastoral chore left solely to mom and dad and young adults with more patience than the pastor. 

    I prepared our 1040 tax return this past week.  Our biggest deduction, higher even than our mortgage and much higher than our taxes, was for church contributions, mostly for the local church (actually churches).  That is, we are paying for my right to complain. Like old Abraham, I am hoping against hope that Jesus has something in mind for the future of the Gospel that includes the institutional church.    





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