Friday, October 13, 2017

Framing the discussion

Sticking with the "picture" metaphor for just a moment ...

You put a frame around a picture to set it off, to emphasize the boundaries around it. In the same way, to "frame" an argument or a discussion means agreeing ahead of time on what the boundaries are.

I ran across this interesting blog post from several years ago where I laid out a few examples of the huge questions that go into this discussion of the church. If you read through this, written as I was finishing up an eight week sabbatical, you start to see the amazing diversity of this discussion. And as I reread that post now, I think I oversimplified things!

Let me give three examples of what plays into this discussion of the changes in the church:

First, the church itself. Anyone who is paying attention will tell you that churches face incredible change today. The majority of churches in America and throughout the west are in stasis or decline. Very few are growing, and those that are growing often find themselves under attack -- from other churches! Why are churches facing such challenges? You can find people blaming all kinds of factors, from youth sports to the internet to affluence to (probably most common) our society drifting away from its Judeo-Christian roots. Each of these factors no doubt plays some part in the decline of church attendance. Carey Nieuwhof and others have documented the fact that the level of loyalty among church attenders has decreased. To put it another way, a generation ago a loyal church attender was in worship three out of four Sundays. These days, loyal church attenders are in worship one or two Sundays out of four, and they see themselves as very dedicated if they're present that often. Churches themselves are changing, and this in itself is a complex matter with lots of factors involved. Now, add in many ways churches have chosen to deal with these changes, and the situation gets extremely complex indeed! (I'm just laying this out at this point -- I know these issues deserve more discussion, but for the moment I'm just putting them out there.)

Second, think about technology. Not just church technology -- hymnals have given way to digital LED projectors, and flannelgraphs have gone the way of the Tyrannosaurus. Think about the way technological change impacts every possible area of our lives. Smart phones alone are revolutionizing our lives in enormous ways. I tried to fix my toaster the other day and realized that the problem was in the motherboard. Who knew that a toaster had a motherboard?! The technological revolution we are currently experiencing has enormous impacts on not only churches, but on every area of life -- and it changes the way we think, the way we process, the way we research. Furthermore, it changes what we believe is true about truth. This gets slippery, I know. If you're interested in thinking about this, check out Amusing Ourselves To Death, an excellent book written in the 1980's about how television was doing exactly that -- changing the way we view reality -- and then think about what impact Siri and her minions are currently having on our views of truth, reality, and what life is supposed to be like! It's hard enough to think coherently about how the changes in technology are impacting our lives, but then to think about how our spirituality and our churches are being impacted ... this is a tough one, but we can't ignore it.

Third, think about America. This gets at history in a little bit different way than we usually think of it, but part of the grand experiment that became the United States of America is the idea of "disestablishmentarianism" -- of not having an official religion for this country. What that does is, it means churches are "voluntary societies." If you move to a new town, you have multiple choices of churches you could join -- or you might choose not to join any church. It's voluntary. From about 400 AD until the early 1800's, that hardly ever happened in Christian history. And in fact in America, there was a sort of "expected" participation in church that had more or less power until the last few decades of the 20th century. But today, very few people will look down on you if you don't go to church. Even dedicated Christians recognize that on any given Sunday, the majority of people in America are not attending worship. This character of voluntary participation in church has shaped the church in America in huge ways, and we have exported many of those attitudes about the church to the rest of the world. In the early 1800's a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and made the observation that the way churches functioned in this fledgling country was truly amazing, and a key part of our strength.

So there are three examples of what it will take to frame our discussion. Now, I believe that each of these three examples provides just a tiny bit of the puzzle, like three tiny peaks showing above the waterline at the top of an enormous iceberg. The part that sinks the Titanic is hidden under the surface, and we need to do some scuba diving to try to figure things out in depth.

To recap: There are massive cultural shifts going on right now. Getting anything like a coherent glimpse of these shifts will require us to think long and hard and deep about what's going on in our world and why things are they way they are. That cultural analysis will not be enough, though. We need then to look at what the church is supposed to be according to its architect. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said to Peter, "... I will build my church ..." Notice that it's his church, and he's the designer and builder. We'll take a hard look in coming blog posts at the question of whether churches may have missed Jesus' design as he lays it out in the Bible and in history. Then, once we've looked at our current context and at Jesus' intention for his church, we can begin to ask the question, what is the Spirit of God up to in churches today? What is a community of Jesus-followers supposed to look like today?

It's a huge topic, so thanks for hanging in as we launch in the coming days. And as I said last time, know that your comments are important to this discussion!

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