Thursday, July 13, 2006

More thoughts on the "message captivity" of the progressive church

Been thinking while on is something I just posted to the UUCF email list in response to some questions about church growth and conservatives and progressives. I will be developing the thoughts a little more, with your help I hope, and in some book reviews of recent reading I will be posting too. Here goes.

A teaser: my latest thinking is leading me to this (over)generalization: conservatives (for want of a better term) emphasize method over message because their message is fixed, and because they are driven to find ways to keep their unchanging message alive and growing in a changing culture. They have been free to adopt latest cultural techniques in reaching unchurched in the culture because they aren't spending a lot of energy, resources on the message itself. They know their St. Paul or their early church version of St. Paul ala Acts 17. Now, their emphasis on method and not message was rewarded in the 20th century as the culture moved from being churched to being unchurched; in other words, getting the message right and hoping that it will attract the unchurched is a reaction and strategy based in the churched culture where people are looking for a church that will believe what they believe (and of course for many in the churched culture they just assumed this went with denominational territory and so all they had to do was find a church with the name they were used to).
However, the culture has moved from looking for belief to looking for belonging (hence the situation where people go to where they feel they belong and secondarily are concerned with what beliefs, i.e. message, the community has, especially since they come to the community with conflicted or no set beliefs theologically of their own). A focus on message, or belief communication, has a few strikes against it right off the bat in this new ballpark of a culture.
The conservatives have been able to employ method to adapt to culture that is looking more for method now.
Progressives (for want of a better term) have tended to focus on message rather than method. Part of this is the focus on the rational we have had, our history is one of changing messages and beliefs, and thinking that if people could just think the way we do they would join us. We have been focused on the latest ideas rather than latest technologies and cultural shifts. This has been our gift to the church universal, I suppose, and on my better days I believe it has been, a kind of philosophical leaven in the church; however there is a shadow side to that, and what happens when culture shifts so that philosophy, especially of a kind of individual nature, is not prized anymore over communal experience and the rise of image over idea in the culture.
Considering just the UUs, and I think you can see lately how other progressives in other protestant traditions especially have followed suit--consider how much we have rooted ourselves in internal dialogue/debate over words, and ideas, and beliefs, and names, all while the culture is yawning and interested in belonging, and I mean belonging in a deep sense of how they can belong in a community of faith, their neighborhood, their families, their relationships, etc. Progressives have been much behind the times in addressing these issues of belonging even while we have been on the forefront of advocating for radical hospitality and liberation on the social front.
Now, finally (?), this so far has been diagnosis in summary form (and much of it borrowed of course from many sources from Schaller to Sweet, et al listed at the blog). but what of tomorrow? What of those born not even after 1975--whose experiences and worldviews have been so discontinuous with those born before that time and who have shaped much of the discussion and diagnosis so far (except of course among progressives publicly in general assemblies and publications)--but of those born after 1990 like my 16 year old daughter who is now btw in Paris and Europe though living in small poor Turley, OK, and whose world and experiences and expectations will differ from I, who was born and raised here and returned here, and have never been to Europe? What expectations will she and others like her have rooted within them, and will it be conservatives or progressives or those who can get beyond those labels somehow who will be able to offer them bread and not stones to eat?
I will follow up that question this summer too as I explore, with apologies to thomas friedman, "The Flat Church."
hope this helps, even if by befuddlement :)


LT said...

Great Post, Ron.
The theme is "belonging" vs. "believing." We should unpack what this "belonging" is. I think that conservatives and progressives both want to "belong", but they may mean something different by it.
We have to start looking at the conservative church movement in the light of its fruits. Clearly, it's message and methods led it into an idolatrous relationship with power and authority. How much was it able to fulfill people's need for social order, for respectability, and for a place to stand in a chaotic social environment, by enrolling them into the community branches of an authoritarian social and political movement? For the most part, they are not challenging a churchy culture, although they streamline it a lot.
Unitarian Universalist congregations have generally thrown "believing" out the window, although many still make "not believing" the test of membership. But in many congregations, it's pretty non-stop "community", "belonging" and "being present to each other." Somehow, progressive "belonging" is not the same thing.
What's your take on this?

Bill Baar said...

I think it would help if you cited some conservative examples.

I know plenty of UU's who believe in something and get darn ticked off if you don't believe the same thing. If they're in a good mood they'll tell you they tolerate you.

And then I find a Pope and former inquister writing stuff like this...

How many ways are there to God?

As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man's way is an entirely personal one. We have Christ's word: I am the way. In that respect, there is ultimately one way, and everyone who is on the way to God is therefore in some sense also on the way of Jesus Christ. But this does not mean that all ways are identical in terms of consciousness and will, but, on the contrary, the one way is so big that it becomes a personal way for each man.

It's not easy to sort out the religous liberals and conservatives anymore.

Bill Baar said...

PS Another Conservative: Richard John Neuhaus ,writing everyone believes

These are thoughts I save and think about for months. But for me, believe isn't too important; the response to truth claims... a person's actions are though. Everybody believes. It is a question of what they believe, and why. The atheist makes a breathtaking leap of faith in believing there is no God, since he could not possibly have all the evidence pertinent to arriving at that conclusion.
One need not go so far as the early Karl Barth who insisted that Christianity is not a religion, but it is obvious that one is not, or should not be, a Christian because he believes in religion. Rather, he has by reason, authoritative testimony, and the gift of faith, accepted the claim that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
The question is not whether one believes in believing or believes in religion. The question is how one responds to the truth claims proposed by traditions of thought–Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc.–that are conventionally called religions.

I read the conservatives because they just seem to have a deeper understanding of belief... deeper than most UU writers it seems.

Ron said...

LT, you touch on something important with your word idolatrous, something that will be a key point in my developing this point about the message captivity; it is the shadow side of both the liberal and conservative traditions of Christianity (setting aside UUism per se for the moment).

The shadow side of the "meth(od)-addicted" on the conservative front is a captivity to culture all the while proclaiming an allegiance to Christ who transforms culture. So that when you couple their mission and church planting focus with their underlying and unexamined message, you get new communities of belongings that mirror much of culture and its prevailing idolatries. It is one of the reasons why the emerging church movement has critiqued the mega church movement and the church growth movement, and why milennials and some gen-xers dont feel like they belong in the churches that have been planted. We are seeing some signs of the idolatry and religio-political-affiliation being broken among evangelicals (as sen. obama alludes to in this morning's NPR interview on the morning edition; someone can provide the link i am sure from is interesting that the more fundamentalist and withdraw from the battlezone Christians like Cal Thomas and others accuse the robertson and dobsons and others of idolatry, and a suspicion of using the methods of culture has always permeated from the fundamentalists who have distanced themselves from the evangelicals. Now the critique is coming from younger more liberal evangelicals. In the drive to churches of High tech-high touch, sometimes high touch has lost out, and the emerging church has emerged in response. Though of course in sheer numbers the emerging church folks are still a minority on the scene. And as expected there has been a natural critique of the emerging church movement from within as well as without for being all candles and warm fuzzies and no crucified Christ or justice seeking church. Idolatry abounds, surprise surprise. For church planters though it should be a constant concern.

Of course the idolatries and shadow sides of the message-addicted progressives concern and intrique me even more. Our shadow side is the shadow side of enlightenment and modernity itself--talk about your cultural captivity. As that culture fades or is evolved into something different in the flat universe, what will be the result for progressive communities? If what you have consists mostly of shadow side, and you spend most of your time and energy adjusting to being in the shadows, few if any will be able to see you or your message.

In the face of all this, Christ still calls for communities of transformation and resurrection, and the truth still must be spoken and lived. That's why we are here and needed even with all our flaws and idolatries. For some of the ways through the shadows, I would point people back to your own blog as well. A lot more to be blogged as I sort out some knotted threads.

Ron said...

Bill, thanks. As I develop these posts into an essay I will take some time to shape with some examples. Good ones from you. I wish for better terms than conservative and progressive because they don't seem to work anymore. My wife, the physician, keeps reminding me though of the scientific necessity of labeling for diagnostic and taxonomic purposes, all as a way to keep pointing to something else I guess and it is good to recognize when something new is breaking through, and labels I guess help us to know when that is happening.

I love reading conservatives too and First Things is a somewhat guilty pleasure of mine; I love being able to argue with Niehaus and with Hauerwas and really love to see them going at each other; I learn and am challenged and transformed by it all. As things and threads develop I will try to bring in their views and particularly cast them in the light of how useful they might be to people trying to create and transform faith communities. This might get back to LT's post and his blog on The Lively Tradition, but the gift of the conservators is to remind us of the Tradition's gifts for us today. The rub of course comes from where in the Tradition one draws one's living water. Mine is somewhat different from Niehaus for sure and I am not so sure about Hauerwas :). Lately my well of tradition is located in the land of the 50 c.e., and with Paul. Certainly beyond just the historical Jesus, to which I am glad many UUs have returned to, but not quite so comfortable and sustaining in the post-70 c.e. tradition to where so many church planters of course have gone, in Acts and Peter or in some cases much later.

More good ideas to develop.

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