Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Church as a Moral Project

The National Post on Saturday September 23, 2006 published a very provocative column by Andrew Coyne on dual citizenship. Currently in Canada there is a debate on whether people should be allowed to be dual citizens, i.e., Canadians and whatever. Coyne said that Canadians have begun to look upon the nation as a service provider and hence they join in order to receive certain benefits. Instead, he argues, a nation is a “moral project” and people should join because they are committing to this moral project.

I have had to set aside the obvious question: “what is Canada’s moral project” because I can’t seem to come up with an answer. But my mind has turned on this intriguing thought to other commitments. For example, church.

In the nineties the presentation of church as a provider of services loomed on the horizon, and by the turn of the century was probably the most accepted profile among evangelicals. I don’t think it has made its way into formal theological expression, but certainly it has become a working ecclesiology.

And, while that was happening, the same motif was adopted as a definition of denominations. They are, in this motif, the next level of service providers. Denominations, and their subsets, districts, diocese, what have you, are there to provide resources and other services to the church, which in turn is there to provide resources and other services to the people who attend.

Like all concepts, there is of course a large element of truth in this. Churches have always provided for many needs in the lives of people, both individually and communally. For example, the church has frequently been a place for the training of musicians and for musical expression. This is a need that people have, that is, a need for beauty and artistic expression, and people still have this need. Many other felt or unfelt needs could be listed.

This is all fine and good. What I am wondering is this. To what extent have we lost the concept of the church as a moral and, I will add, a spiritual project? That is, the church as something which we join because we believe in what is happening there and we want to be part of making it happen?

As I write this I can already see the responses that will remind me that “this generation does not want to join – they are suspicious of organizations and reluctant to commit.” Perhaps I can jump ahead in the discussion and ask – are we as the church part of the problem? Have we contributed to this non-commitment/individualistic mind set? And, is it possible for pastors and people to find their way back to a concept of local church and denomination as being a project to which we commit?


Black Riders said...

Hello Franklin,

First of all, thank you for providing this venue for conversation. I've been following it from the beginning, and just hadn't felt in a position to reply before. But this post struck a chord.

My short answer is yes, yes, and yes.

But before I elaborate on that, I'd like to preemptively challenge the notion that “this generation does not want to join,” that “they are suspicious of organizations and reluctant to commit.” This generation is suspicious of some organizations, yes, but I think they are desperately looking for something to join, to which they can commit. And they are finding them elsewhere than the church. In some ways, I think that they are aware and involved and committed to “moral projects” in ways and to a degree unknown in many periods in the past (this, of course, from the perspective of someone who has only been around for 36 years and aware for maybe 20!). Yes, they are suspicious of the church as an organization, and yet could easily be committed to God, if only they felt like they could find him. Which leads to my thoughts, still formative, regarding your questions…

Yes, the church is part of the problem. In part, there is suspicion of any organization that is, or at least appears to be, more concerned with itself as an organization than with why it became an organization in the first place. That could describe governments, large multinational corporations, bureaucracies of every stripe, including organized religion. In part, and this is the more difficult thing to overcome, the church is simply no longer a place where “we believe in what is happening there” and where “we want to be part of making it happen”. These two things are linked in that once you don’t believe in what is happening in the church, the church begins to appear more concerned with what it wants to see happening versus what you feel led by God to see happening. In that respect, the church could be the entire problem. Those that see it as a righteous moral project will naturally commit, and you end up preaching to the converted. Those that see it as a moral project that has lost its way will attempt to correct as they are able, but, failing that, will leave, and you end up asking the questions you are asking here.

Yes, we have contributed to this individualistic mindset. We often “sell” our churches on what programs they provide, how extensive the childcare is, how good the worship is. It’s often about what my church can do for me, how I feel when I am there. It’s about being comfortable, not challenged. And while a church is certainly a place to have needs met, should that be solely why people choose to go? And if that is what brings people in the doors, is that the thing on which we should continue to focus in order to convince people to stay? Is a marriage about a commitment, a promise, a daily choice, or something you do only so long as it meets my needs, makes me feel good, serves my purposes?

I also find somewhat problematic the pairing of “non-commitment/individualistic” since I believe it is possible to be committed and individualistic, if the institution permits. To continue with the analogy of marriage, my choosing to commit to my wife does not presume either of us giving up our own opinions, our own sense of self. If to be individualistic means to question, to dissent, to wonder and seek after the truth, I wonder if to be individualistic in many churches is not so much to be non-committal but rather to be not welcome.

But yes, we can find a way back. I think some of us already have, though perhaps I presume too much. Perhaps the problem is that we don’t all find our way back to “local church and denomination”, but we nonetheless find our way back to the body of Christ, back to a relationship with God, stunted though it may be from lack of corporate worship. Or perhaps some of us have found our way back, but have committed in an individualistic fashion, not out of rebellion but rather celebration of the diversity of God’s creation of man, where we can find such places or make such places to welcome us on the fringes of the church.

Your questions bring to my mind J.F.K.’s infamous call to "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." It’s an important point that J.F.K. does not say “This is what you need to do for your country.” Rather he challenged his people to seek out an answer, to find their place in the “moral project” that was the United States of the 1960s.

I don’t remember the last time the church asked me to find my place in the church. I’ve often been told my place in the church, I’ve often had my place presumed for me. But I prefer the place God has made for me, and the place he wants me to make for others. The fact that these places are not the same is something the church does need to look at. They could be. They ought to be.

This is certainly a complex issue, not to be solved easily, and I certainly do not have all the answers, if any at all. But to open up the conversation is a great step in the right direction. Thank you again for opening up this place for us to share and discuss such issues with you. I look forward to seeing what else God has in store!


Rob Wahl said...

The idea of a national moral project makes me queezy. But truly, belonging to church or a nation is conditioned upon sharing of at least some values.

Our church, like a great many others has been redefining membership-- what it means to belong. We have found it necessary to state that "we expect our voting members to make an ongoing effort to understand and support, ...the values and goals of [our church]. In that sense, we are a moral project.

A church may be a moral project, but it must first be a God project. Indeed we do hunger for righteousness, but it is God who satisfies. And since it is the pure in heart who will see God, purity is always only the means to God.

Or possibly a moral project may be the means by which we point to God. In so doing we may ourselves find God. We may find him in "the least of these my brothers".

Your former student
Rob Wahl

Your very real friend, Franklin said...

Dear Black Rider: Your comments stimulate me. What I mean by individualistic is not the loss of the individual, identity, interests, etc., but living the opposite of community. I think it is a relevant point you bring out that as many of us stress community we can only have that -- counter intuitively-- as we strengthen our individuality. It is very much like a marriage. If I lose myself, I lose the union.

I want to hear that this generation is willing to join. The question that seems to be under the surface for us is this: how do we remake church without simply recycling the project of making church an institution that serves me?

Your very real friend, Franklin said...

Rob: It is so good to hear from you. I have been away from the blog for awhile, but I am back. The concept I am dealing with here is--can we think of church as something we commit to even though it is not necessarily doing all the things for us that we think it should. I like Blackrider's reference to JFK and his highlighting that the other side of the coin is that we need to find our own way into our church, and the church needs to let us do that.