Sunday, August 4, 2002

Who is the Church?

"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;"
(Philippians 2"12)

In a discussion group I attend on Sunday morning on contemporary issues, there was a heated discussion about the kind of music we should have during worship and one person asked another person why they stayed in the church if they had so many criticisms. I thought later that one answer could be that it was like staying in a difficult marriage. The person who asked the question probably would not suggest bailing out of a marriage just because the going got rough, although that is exactly what many people do today. Relationships are never easy, not in families, nor between friends, nor in churches. Scott Peck says that their are only two reasons to be married; children and stress. The first are necessary for the continuation of the human race, and stress is necessary for spiritual growth. We don't divorce our parents or our children when we disagree. Disagreements are bound to occur, even when everyone is doing their best.

It is easy to look for someone else to blame when we don't like what is going on. Last week I wrote about how many people feel they have no spiritual home because the church is failing to address their needs or for a variety of other reasons. But it is far too easy to blame the church, or the pastor for the failings of the church, especially when everyone is having a hard time these days figuring things out. The people themselves must share the blame if things are going wrong or as well as the responsibility for making things right. The Gospel lesson this morning was the story about the disciples coming to Jesus because a great multitude of people had nothing to eat. The disciples expected Jesus to solve the problem, but Jesus told them it was their problem to solve, not his. In the end, he wound up doing it anyway because of the ineptness of the disciples. Jesus is not here to bail out the church.

In the past, pastors and priests actually did exert a kind of autocratic control over the church, but that is hardly the case now, especially in Protestant churches. Only the Catholics and the Methodists guarantee pastoral appointments. All people in positions of leadership are under the gun these days; pastors, politicians, school administrators, fire and police chiefs and athletic coaches. The tenure of these leaders has become very short. Our culture does not respect authority figures. As a result, a Protestant pastor who has to pay the rent and educate his children the same as everyone else has to be very careful about stepping on the toes of his parishioners who hold the purse strings, or he better keep his bags packed in the narthex. Unfortunately in churches as in the rest of the world, the Golden Rule most often practiced is "the one with the gold makes the rules."

I am referring to Christian churches because that is my area of expertise, but from what I have heard and read, the problem is not unique to Christians. Any individual who relies on an institution or organization to pay their salary has to walk a fine line between expectation and conscience. Ultimately, it is the people themselves who decide the scope and direction of ministry, the educational standard or the honesty of an commercial enterprise.

That being said, most people who disagree with the church left long ago and often the ones who have remained have made an accommodation with things as they are, and their numbers are decreasing every day. Yet, we are not going to pull our children out of school because we don't like how they are being taught. We are going to try to change things, if we can, and if we think we can't, we are going to try to get the kids in a different school. Some parents may home-school, but forgoing education altogether is not an option. Foregoing our children's religious education and our own religious duty should not be an option either.

All human institutions are subject to success and failure, bear and bull markets. When things aren't going as we would like, we change strategies, we don't abandon ship. Jesus aimed his harshest criticism at the church, but he never advocated abandoning it because, in spite of her failings, the church was the repository of the wisdom of God, even if her leaders garbled the message.

"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach." (Matthew 23:1-3)

The disciples were called to spiritual reform, to a new vision of what it meant to be faithful and a new commitment to personal responsibility. Every religion has experienced the need to reform and change to meet the needs of a changing world. Change always is difficult and slow, but change is the hallmark of existence and religion is no different. Faith is to tough it out; to remain loyal in difficult situations because of duty, trust and hope in a better future and not to fear the challenge of change. Prayer is the vehicle that helps humans manage change. "Not my will, but thine be done."

In the meantime, in a democratic society, every person must regard the ministry of the church, good schools, honest government, or ethical business practices as their personal responsibility. If we find ourselves alone in asking for change, we always have the option of voting with our feet . . . out the door. But we do not forego the obligation to find another church, or political party, or school or job. That usually can be done, if we're not lazy and expecting spiritual welfare handouts.

The prairie churches I served in the Midwest were all built by people who had no pastors, not for a number of years. These settlers were very poor by our standards and came out to homestead frontier territory where there were no grocery stores, banks to make loans, builder supply stores or jobs. They had few tools, no income and only what they could carry with them in a wagon, on a horse or on their backs. Usually they had only one book and that was a Bible, and maybe one other, a hymnbook in German with no musical notation. They carried the tunes in their heads. They had to take personal responsibility for everything. As soon as enough of them had settled in an area and built shelter for their families, they cooperated to build a school and then a church. Until they could entice a pastor to come out to serve it for little pay and at great sacrifice, they were the school and the church themselves and fulfilled all their functions. No whining allowed. The spirit of personal responsibility still is alive and well in these communities.

The church must change to stay alive, and it is the people who must bring about the change. Eldridge Cleaver said, "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." A consumer mentality cannot save the church, our schools, or our government. Consumer mentality and greed are responsible for our recent enormous economic upheavals. If our institutions have failed us, as Pogo observed, "I looked for the enemy, and the enemy is us." Spiritual, ethical and moral failure are failures of community, not just of leadership.

The "kingdom is in your midst." You already know what to do. Trust what you know and do it. No whining allowed.