Ceding the Frame
This post was written while blasting the album Omnium Gatherum by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. I apologize in advance.
Sorry for the lack of content lately, folks. I'm working on a longer post that requires some more deliberate drafting and composition, but also I'm not working on the writing super hard and deliberately. Still trying to find the balance between taking this time, for myself, and being available to the family and community for when they need me. I'm sure the Greybeards among you can confirm, the rebalancing is a moving target, and it's never really, you know, “settled”.
That said, I'm going to take a little time today to reflect on a great Mastodon post that I read, and a bit of the reflection my friend Cameron and I had about it. It seemed like a good enough idea to drag out a bit into a thousand words or so.
Hundreds of theories for the cause of the decline have been presented.
But any theory for why churches have been declining should also be able to explain why virtually EVERY traditional social institution is declining. Membership in everything from the Boy Scouts to the NAACP have been in decline.
These were two things that I had known, but hadn't yet put together in context. And it bent my brain around a bit. For context, for new people, I am from and currently occupy a spiritual tradition that could probably be, more or less, accurately described as adjacent to Evangelical Christianity. We're theologically more diverse than we think we are, but our day to day culture is very often aligned with Evangelicalism, with their celebrities, anxieties and talking points enjoying dominance in our conversations. This isn't my favorite thing, but it makes me broadly literate in the way that Evangelicalism frames it's culture wars, and boy oh boy. The decline in attendance, giving and membership is absolutely laid at the feet of a worldly culture.
This is an “Us v Them” frame that I think is understandable, if regrettable. It's the natural frame for fallen man to fall in to, particularly under stress. The reason our children don't come back to church after they go to college is because of the secularizing influence of state schools, or because we didn't homeschool them. The reason families don't come to church is because of school athletics competing for time, or because both partners are working and don't have time after work to get everyone in the car to Wednesday Bible Study. The reason our empty nesters don't keep coming to church is because we made the whole experience about keeping the kids there etc etc etc. Stop me if you've heard any of these before.
Here's the thing about what Dallas pointed out, though. Whatever it is that's causing the decline in attendance and membership, it's not an attack from the culture against the church. It's a headwind that's affecting both the Church and the culture. We are not suffering under the culture, we are suffering with the culture. Something out there, whether it's a deliberate attack or one of those headwinds that's nobody's fault but everybody's problem, is arrayed against togetherness, belonging, and free association. The enemy is Isolation and Loneliness.
This is a frame that, I think, aligns much more closely to the Heart of Christ. The story of the Incarnation is not to be understood as Christ suffering under the culture, it's best understood as Christ insisting that He will not hold himself above and separate from the suffering of the culture. It's participation in our humanity, taking it on Himself and sharing in it. We are Co-Sufferers with Christ. That's the Crucifixion.
This is the frame that's lost when we cede the frame to Modernism, to think of the struggles of the church as having causes and solutions that exist solely in the individual's conviction and choices. Every solution provided by the Church has predominated along these lines. The solution is biblical literacy, it's home schooling, it's discipleship, it's fighting a ground game in each individual's heart and mind, where success is producing a group of people who cannot fathom leaving the church because the possibility is a non-choice for them.
The solutions left on the table, and often directly maligned, are things like treating the church and the people in it deliberately as a primarily social construct. A pastor who neglects biblical literacy and spends all their time making sure the people in the church are getting along and feel like they belong is derided as a fool and, probably, a liberal. A pastor who neglects the ties that bind the people together and focuses all his time on teaching and literacy from the pulpit will be... well, considered normal by their peers. The Church as Social Club is almost universally derided as a dead and spiritually lifeless construct. Ichabod, The Presence has Departed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider that when Christ came to us and began His ministry, He started by calling disciples, friends, to Him, and taught them by sharing His whole life with them. Consider how He established His church as a community, a family of faith, not an individual expression of private conviction. We don't have biblical examples of “free range” or “lone wolf” believers, living isolated lives that are still faithful to the scripture and the Gospel. Even St Paul, who spent his whole ministry as an itinerant church planter, wrote over and over how it was his friendships in these communities that sustained his work, it was the people's expression of the love of Christ to him that allowed him to continue on in the work.
Consider that when an Infinite God chose to reveal Himself to mortal man, to make Himself known to His people and, later, His church, He chose to do so either with a one-on-one relationship with a human being, or through narrative in the holy scripture, a narrative that only has any meaning when told in context by a people formed by a lifetime of submission to it. Consider, finally, that you received the faith not from out of nowhere, or from a book, absent any context. Even someone who physically receives the scripture must be taught how to read it. The way the truth has been preserved and the gospel has been shared to you is along an unbroken, hand to hand line of faithful believers. You are connected directly to Christ, not by a cord built (only) of knowledge, or faith, or belief, but by a cord built of human relationships.
“A voice, crying in the Wilderness, 'Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord'.” The Way of the Lord, the way Christ moves through creation and reconquers it in His name, is the friendships and family relationships we have. Preserving that net that binds us together, with seemingly mundane events like cake walks, movie nights, phone trees and card drives, is vitally, critically important pastoral work, and the church would not and will not exist without it.
We're not just a social club, but we certainly are, among other things, a social construct. Maybe that common cause with the social ills of the wider, secular culture will cause us to focus just a little bit more on the real cause of all our ailments, and act as a real force of healing for our whole nation. Man can dream.