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Why the Church Fails

Duane Arnold:

FailRecently I was looking for a bit of inspiration, so, using differing search engines, I entered the phrase, “Why the Church Fails.”  I was fascinated by the results.  The topics that arose were consistently along the lines of the following:

Why the Church Fails Us…

Why the Church Fails Me…

Why the Church Fails Businessmen…

Why the Church Fails the Divorced…

Why the Church Fails Singles…

Why the Church Fails Married Couples…

Why the Church Fails the Gay Community…

On and on the entries followed one after the other.  There was, however, a common thread.  When different authors wrote about how the Church has failed, it was generally about how it had failed “me,” or my tribe, or my profession, or my state in life.  At the root of it was the perception that the Church had failed me personally (or professionally) in one way or another.

In the ecclesiastical cafeteria that characterizes American Christianity, the failures of which they, and we, speak are not usually considered the fault of the universal Church (or, indeed the Church militant and triumphant of which Christ is the head), but more often the perceived failure of this church or that church with which we have become acquainted.  Somehow, the local church that we bumped into failed to meet our needs and so we move down the road to another– another with its own unique set of problems and issues which we will soon discover and, very likely, pronounce as having failed in satisfying our particular needs or desires before moving on yet again. On occasion, the accusation of failure will move beyond the local church to a denomination, association, or even those who hold a particular theological view, such as evangelicals or the Reformed or those with a high view of sacraments.

Something about the tendency to treat the Church as “other,” i.e. outside of ourselves, troubles me.  It troubles me because, in a profound theological sense, we are the Church.  Our Lord said that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of that group.  We are individually and corporately the Church.  The house churches of which we read in Paul’s letters were often exactly that– a married couple who opened their home to other believers and thereby constituted an ecclesia– a church.  Yet, despite this theological reality, we still identify the concept of “church” with a building, or a pastor, or a particular group, or a denomination; and in that identification of something or someone outside of ourselves being “the church,” we are quick to indicate how they, or it, has failed us.

Now, life experience should make all of us aware that by and large individuals will fail us at some point in time.  The otherwise admirable husband may forget the date of the wedding anniversary.  The devoted wife may make an ill-timed remark.  These things just happen.  Institutions will also fail us a some point or another.  Asking the highly rated educational institution to send transcripts for the third time comes to mind.  And yes, even those leaders of movements whom we otherwise admire may say or do something that causes us pain and makes us feel that they have failed us.

Yet, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault dear friends, is not in the Church, but in ourselves”.

criticsWe have been all too willing to be spectators and all too often our criticism and speculation on “why the Church fails us” is made anonymously from the balcony, or worse yet, from the outside.  You see, from a distance it is easy and safe to pontificate.  Moreover, this “spectator” syndrome flies in the face of the concept of the priesthood of all believers (in the Reformation/Protestant world) or of the people of God (in the Roman Catholic/Orthodox world).  Both appellations– “priesthood of all believers” and “people of God”– are not only conferred privileges, but bear with them responsibilities.  To put it bluntly, for much too long a time we have looked to others to create, sustain, and lead what we call “Church” while many of us throw in our comments and criticisms from the peanut gallery.

In practical terms, living out our own lives as a vital and contributing member of the Church can mean many things, especially on a local level.  If you are in an unhealthy church situation which, for whatever reason, consigns you to being a mere spectator with no hope of real involvement, leave and find a place where you can exercise your God given gifts.  If you are in a church situation in which there are issues that concern you, take it upon yourself to address those issues. Speak to the pastor or priest, not in anger but in love, and share your concerns.  If the issue is that the church is unfriendly, go out of your way each week to welcome at least one newcomer, or better yet, invite someone.  If there is a lack of meaningful Christian Education, offer to teach an adult class or at the very least organize a discussion group around various topics of interest. If there is not a married couples group, or a singles group, start one.  So much can be done, and needs to be done, and it is not enough to wait for someone else to step up to the task.

When we move beyond the local expression of the Church, matters are admittedly more difficult.  For instance, I doubt that any of us here will have a chance to sit down and talk to Joel Osteen, or Franklin Graham, or Jerry Falwell, Jr., about their approaches to theology or ministry.  We can, however, at the very least, in our interactions with others simply say, “They do not speak for me or the vast majority of Christians.”  Yet, many believe that they speak on the behalf of most believers owing to their media outreach and influence.  Let us be clear, however, in identifying these so-called spokesmen  as aberrations.  In terms of the early Church of the first four centuries, Osteen would be considered as a Gnostic, Graham as a court bishop similar to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and the gun-toting Falwell as near to a politicized moral apostate.  Moreover, when we consider the average salary of a clergy person in the US in 2017 to be about $46,000 a year (half below that amount and another half above it), the annual incomes of Osteen (no salary, but a net worth of over $40 million) Graham ($880,000 per year ) and Falwell ($803,000 per year) are simply obscene, placing them well outside the bounds of historic Christian leadership and norms of compensation.  Moreover, these are merely three among dozens, if not hundreds, that could be named.

Their surest exposure, however, will come not from words on a page or a screen, but when we begin to hold up the mirror of authentic church life and historic theology.  Yet even here, that mirror needs to reflect our own authentic experience of Church and our personal commitment and involvement.  Then, perhaps, we can move beyond the haggard and specious argument of, “Well, they may be theologically off-base, but look at all the good they are doing and all the people attending their church/school/rallies.”  Success is not the measure of Truth, and it is long past time that we continue to regard it as such.

Now, whenever I write about ecclesiology and the issues we are facing, someone will always respond with the reference that Christ said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, as though that settles the issue, no matter what we do or what we leave undone.  As usual, however, the citation is usually taken out of context.  For, immediately after Christ made this promise, he continued addressing Peter and the disciples, saying, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  You see, the promise is connected with the tools Christ gives us to truly be his Church, not as observers or mere critics, but as participants.  It is time for more than posts on threads or critical comments on “why the Church fails us,” it is time for us to actually be the Church.

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bellsDuane Arnold:

I’ve just returned from a brief business trip overseas that took me to Paris. It is a city that I have grown to love over the past 30 years and that I have visited, often for long periods of time, almost every year during those three decades.  While there, I often have the opportunity to write and reflect.  This year, those reflections were more focused as an old friend at the Sorbonne asked me to meet with his post-graduate seminar group to talk about the state of the American church and its politics in light of the recent election, a subject that has been extensively reported upon by European news outlets.  Thankfully, I had some materials near at hand, so a great deal of preparation was not involved.  As usually happens, however, sometimes the lecturer learns more than the student in the process of teaching.

France, while culturally Roman Catholic, is a secular state.  Churches and, indeed, church institutions receive few special privileges apart from a certain measure of tax exemption.  France is considered to be one of the most irreligious of all countries. According to a survey undertaken in 2010, a full 40% of the French population answered that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force,” with only 27% stating that they believe there is a God. The other 27% believe that there is “some sort of life force or spirit.”  The remaining 6% “do not know.” On any given weekend less than 5% of the country’s Roman Catholics will attend church. Protestants (mainly Reformed evangelicals) make up less than 2% of the population, just behind the 3% who are adherents of Islam. As an example of the secular nature of French society, getting married in France is a wholly civil function which takes place at a municipal office, while a subsequent religious service (or none) is wholly the decision of the couple and the tenants of their faith community. Since 2013, the same rules apply to same-sex marriage.

It is clearly a different landscape than that of the United States, which most French reporting portrays as “obsessed with religion.”

All this was on my mind as I prepared to meet with the seminar group. Although my French is less fluent than I could desire, the small group of twenty-somethings around the table were patient and understanding. I presented the latest figures from Pew Research on the state of the Church in the U.S., referencing the decline of mainline denominations, the apparent support of evangelicals for the current administration, and a range of other topics. Afterwards, a lively discussion ensued. There were, as always, a number of questions about the availability of teaching positions in the U.S., as there are fewer and fewer posts available in France. I then, sadly, had to inform them of the difficulties being encountered by American universities and seminaries.

As we were preparing to end the session, I took the opportunity to pose my own question to the seminar group. I asked, “What is the greatest challenge you are facing?” Now, after the previous discussion, I was expecting the participants to talk about tuition, teaching posts, etc. After a bit of silence, however, a young man in the group spoke up and said this:

french cathedral“Dr. Arnold, we are facing the death of historic Christianity in Western Europe. It is clear that this decline has spread to the United States and the Western Hemisphere at large. Like a pandemic, the decline morphs and changes as it spreads and then returns to its place of origin. The evangelicals in the United States are ‘ahistorical,’ dependent not on a reasoned or historic faith but on marketing models largely derived from totalitarian propaganda systems which value only experience. You cannot answer their claims, because the claims have no basis in either history or reason. This kind of evangelicalism is also in Latin America and has spread, returning to Europe in a virulent form. They will only allow the ‘history’ that bolsters not a reasoned or compelling argument, but only a marketing statement. It is the religious equivalent of ‘Make America Great Again.’ The worst part of this is that like all marketing and propaganda, it only lasts for a generation. At the end, we will be left with nothing that speaks of an historic, reasonable Christian faith. We are afraid, Dr. Arnold, that we might be the last generation to know this faith, talking only to each other.”

I carried that young man’s reflection with me through the remainder of my time in Paris and the flight home.

Earlier in the week, a thought had struck me, which I shared with a friend. Through the kindness of a colleague, I had stayed in a condo carved out of a portion of a seventeenth century Musketeer barracks in the midst of three churches and a religious-based hospital with a chapel and a carillon.  In that condo, I constantly heard the bells ringing out from the churches and the hospital chapel.  It struck me that for hundreds of years, people, ordinary people, would have known what the various bells meant– the call to Church, the Angelus, the Words of Institution, the end of church, etc.  Today, however, although the bells still ring, now no one knows what they signify (except for a few antiquarians like me and a limited number of the faithful).  It is sort of like us– we say words to the world around us, but society no longer knows what the words signify.  We know the words (and argue about them) but the world at large has no idea.  We’ve become the bells– sounding lovely and sacred, but devoid of meaning to a society at large which has abandoned faith– as we keep speaking only to each other.

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The Glory of God

foot-washingDuane Arnold:

What is the glory of God really like? The glory of the infinite and eternal God who rules and sustains the universe?  Men had longed to know.  Now the veil is drawn aside: the glory of God is like Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. It is the glory of a God who humbles himself.  Think how God humbles himself in his relations to the world, in the humble birth in the manger at Bethlehem, in Calvary, in all his gentle and patient dealings with ourselves.  In that humility of God we see what the glory of God is like.  –Michael Ramsey

Last week, I sent a photo to a friend.  I scanned it and sent it in an email.  Looking at the picture as I took it from the scanner, I saw the date on the edge: “Feb. 71”.  Forty-six years ago the two of us were standing together in a Christian commune in Oregon, after having moved from California.  Yes, the commune was legalistic, pretty light on formal theology and in many ways an aberration from the norm.  Looking at our faces, however (faces with no lines, creases or wrinkles, but topped off with a great deal of hair), we looked happy.  I’m not sure why we were happy, as we possessed nothing.  We had no ambitions apart from sharing the Gospel in the college community where we were located.  We had no claim to fame or notoriety.  The work we engaged in to support the community, such as planting trees, or picking crops, or demolishing vacant houses, was back breaking.  The food, while usually plentiful, was plain.  In truth, we were probably living a life closer to the early Franciscans than we might have imagined.  Of course, we would have had no real idea about that. You see, even though we knew that there was an early Church (we read about that in our Bibles) we were also pretty certain that everything else of importance started a long time before 1971, probably around 1969!

Looking at that photo, however, there was something “authentic.”  There was a sense of family.  When I called my friend, “brother,” I meant it.  There was also a humility in thought and action.  While the leaders of the movement might have had grander schemes, the rest of us formed a community of which Francis or Bonhoeffer might have been proud.

As it happens in such situations, we eventually all went our different ways, but we carried the experience with us.  While I cannot speak for others who have had this or similar experiences, for myself I have been left with a somewhat jaundiced view of what is considered “success” in the life of the Church today.  For myself, this is especially odd, as even though I’ve served in some very humble situations, I have also had the opportunity to serve through the years in a variety of institutions, cathedrals, endowed churches and, by and large, have been well compensated. Yet, in all these situations and circumstances, I’ve carried a “compass.”  Now, there have been many times I have not consulted that “compass” when it would have been good to do so.  Nonetheless, the “compass” has been there.

The compass of which I speak is the knowledge that, most often, God is not found in the grand and the glorious.  More often, God is to be found in that which the world, and society at large, finds to be of little value or, indeed, that which society at large excoriates.  You see, the God we worship “all glorious above,” is a God who only reveals himself to us in humility.  We find him, not in a Hallmark card version of the Nativity, but in a dank cave, with perhaps a bit of fresh hay laid over the filthy feeding rough for the animals, wrapped in discarded rags.  Imagine the smell, the dirt, the desperate refugee parents begging for a place in which Mary can give birth– and there we find the Glory of God.

A Cambridge professor in theology in the thirties used to say that he wished that once a year in high summer a bull could be sacrificed in the courtyard of the college, so that his divinity students could understand what a sacrifice meant – the distress of the animal, the panic in the eye, the sounds, the agony, the blood, the flies, the smell of death.  Once again, this is where we find God revealed not in mere humility, but in humiliation.  The scourging and buffeting, the hard wood of the cross, the rusted nails, the thorns, a young mother watching her son die an agonizing death– and there we find the Glory of God.

A leader knows his death is imminent, he plans a last evening with his followers. The dust and the dirt of the city lay upon them all.  Rather than seeking the comfort and solace of his friends as betrayal and death looms large, however, he assumes the role of a servant and after the meal he wraps himself about with a towel and, one by one, Individual by individual, he kneels before them and washes their feet– and there we find the Glory of God.

All too often, I have identified the glory of God with that which seemed appropriate in the eyes of society and the values of the country in which I was living.  All too often, I have identified the glory and the greatness of God with the larger church, the greater attendance, the better school, the next degree, the respect of the community, financial well-being, the next book published, or even, a good report from the doctor after the last examination.  And, while none of these things are harmful in themselves, this is not where we will find the Glory of God.

Too often, I have failed to reference my compass.

Yet, I find that I am not alone in my failure to reference that compass.  Church leaders make common cause with politicians to sit at the table of power and influence.  The so-called “prosperity Gospel” continues to be foisted upon believers, even from the steps of the U.S. Capitol.  National greatness is aligned with Christian aspirations. Numerous Christians endorse policies to benefit the wealthiest among us while scorning the poor, the immigrant and the refugee.  Christian leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., boast of carrying concealed weapons as a show of power and align themselves with the most vulgar expressions of misogyny.  And all this is done, by their own pronouncements, for the “glory of God.”

Maybe some of these have never had a compass, or if they did, maybe they mislaid it. I know that I have, from time to time.

So, I return to the picture of those two young men and I try to remember the heart, the ideals, the compass that we shared.  Yet, I have to tell you, I’ve had a gift that has made it easier for me.  After 40 years of not having seen or spoken to each other, I reached out to that long ago friend and for these last number of years, our friendship has been renewed and, if it is possible, enhanced.  Moreover, he still possesses that very same heart, those ideals and that compass that has also guided him through the years. It seems a simple thing to have happened, of no consequence to the great or the powerful… almost too humble a thing to be noticed… yet, it is there we find the Glory of God.

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