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Christendom, Clericalism & Church

By Kevin Ward.

It is not hard to find theologians and sociologists who warn that the crisis confronting institutional religion in western countries like New Zealand and the UK is massive, if not terminal. One of the most colourful comes from an Anglican church leader in describing the plight of his own denomination:

"Not only has the fat lady sung but the cleaners have left, the security guards have turned out the lights and locked the doors, and the wrecking ball waits outside for tomorrow's demolition work. But even so, a few men and women in purple shirts... still huddle together in the now dark stalls, chatting excitedly of all the great operas they are going to stage."

Many Christians within the evangelical tradition, however, argue that their experience does not match these kind of gloomy predictions and immediately point to all kinds of evidence to contradict them. It may be the case that the mainline church is facing crisis, but an evangelicalism enlivened by the fires of charismatic and Pentecostal renewal can point to plenty of evidence that contradicts this generally negative assessment. The success of the Alpha course, the surge of new ethnic churches, the growth of some large Pentecostal and charismatic churches, the rise in 'born again' religion and growth of megachurches in the United States are all indications that a robust evangelicalism seems immune from the trend toward decline and secularisation afflicting more traditional forms of institutional Christianity. I remain rather sceptical about such claims. Klaas Blockmuehl, an evangelical, said that Christians in general had given very little thought to the challenges posed by secularisation and that evangelicals were "often content if they add to their numbers even when the overall state of Christianity deteriorates." That phrase has hung around in my head as a challenging rebuke.

A significant factor in this rather unrealistic perspective has been the focus on church growth. This movement operates by basically looking at churches that are growing and tries to draw out reasons for the growth of those particular churches and claims that, if all churches would only apply these principles, they could all grow. The problem is they have never really looked hard enough at either how the growth of those particular institutions fits in to the broader patterns of religious and cultural change in society, or at where the people coming into these churches come from. As we saw in the last article, research consistently shows that the vast majority of growth in these churches comes from other churches - either of adults transferring from other churches (over 75%) or from people coming to faith as adults who were socialised in the faith as children or youth in other churches. It stands to reason that, if most of the growth in growing churches comes from other churches, then it is impossible that if all churches applied the same principles all churches would grow. The problem is that we have confused the growth of some churches with growth of the Church. We have confused growing churches with being effective in mission. All that has happened is that where people go to church has changed, and some churches have grown at the expense of others. In New Zealand in the 1950s, the vast majority of the 20% or so in church on Sunday went to either mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. By 1999 the percentage in church had fallen to about 10% and over half had moved to evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal churches. True, some of these people had dropped out of church for a time, but it is a mistake to confuse the reawakening of their faith for the first time as an adult, or the renewal of a lapsed faith (to be celebrated though both of these are) as effective mission to that large and ever growing percentage of Kiwis who have never had Christian faith as part of their story and are therefore the genuinely unchurched.

Over against this picture of declining involvement in institutional religion, as we saw in the first article, is an increasing emphasis on spirituality. Increasing numbers of people believe in the supernatural and life after death, pray, read books on spirituality, visit religious websites and attend seminars with a spiritual focus. Spirituality has now even become part of the school curriculum. A recent conference held by the Business Studies Department at Canterbury University was called Spirit at Work in New Zealand, and explored spirituality in the workplace. Of the 120 who attended, only a small minority were Christian of any orthodox variety. There was a strong recognition of the importance of spirituality in business and work, but there was a strongly negative attitude to 'religion' and a rejection of institutional models. It seems that people are looking for spirituality everywhere except in the church. Chris Carter, creator of the X Files wrote, "I'm a non-religious person looking for a religious experience." He created the main character, Fox Mulder, in his own image. Why is it that people who want spiritual answers to the questions of life, and are looking for spiritual resources to sustain them in their life journey (and maybe beyond), are looking anywhere but the church? Research on church leavers consistently shows that many have left because they felt the church was a hindrance rather than a help to their spirituality. Why is it that the church, which historically in our culture has been the place people have gone to have such a dimension of life resourced, is not being seriously considered, except for that small percentage who were brought up believing that church is where those things are found? Personally I believe it is because the containers in which the 'water of life' is offered have become so institutionalised and ritualised that people can no longer imagine that they might contain what they are looking for. They appear more as quaint leftovers of a bygone era, with those inside wishing they were living back in that golden past, than places that might offer anything relevant and meaningful to life as they know it today.

There are, I think, three key areas of challenge for us who are committed to the future of church in New Zealand and the West in general:

* the shadow of Christendom;

* the stranglehold of clericalism;

* and the idolatry of church.

1. The Shadow of Christendom

Church as it exists today has been shaped and formed by existing for eighteen hundred years in what has been known as Christendom, a period where western culture and society was shaped by a Christian understanding, with the church a significant player in determining the values and culture of that society. While that state began to break down in the nineteenth century, it still continued to be given at least lip service until the second half of the 20th century. What has emerged in the west though since the end of the Second World War, and particularly since the 'cultural revolution' of the sixties is a society whose values and culture are no longer shaped by a Christian understanding. The church, however, has continued to maintain forms, values, language and rituals that come out of that framework. These are intensely meaningful and helpful to those brought up within that churched (or Christendom) culture, and it is their concerns that largely shape what churches do. They are, however, meaningless (when they can actually be understood) and irrelevant to the vast majority of those brought up in post sixties western culture. Hence the diminishing returns of the church as we have seen amongst Baby Boomers and even more so among GenXers. Most of the attempts to renew, or build new kinds of churches, are still largely determined by the inherited forms and patterns of the past. A case in point that illustrates this is the huge emphasis still placed on coming to worship on Sunday as the primary point of commitment for Christians. Sunday as a special day for worship was a product of Christendom. In the post Christendom culture we live in, it is just another day of the week for increasing numbers of, particularly young, westerners, and for many, attending church is not possible with work, family or sporting commitments. Yet for so many churches it is still the only real option offered.

Or take what happens in church. Shaped by our Christendom heritage the main fare is worship in the form of corporate singing in unison and listening to a 30 or 40 minute monologue, with no opportunity to interact. Where else in our society do these forms of communication happen? The experience of Alpha, I think, illustrates this. Both in Britain and in New Zealand this seems to have been pretty effective in getting people to think and talk about Christianity and often to come to some kind of faith commitment. What I found in talking with people in Britain, though, was a growing concern that very few of the vast numbers going through Alpha seemed to be ending up in church. On asking that question of those involved in running courses here in New Zealand I have invariably found the same response. My hunch is that people are coming into a context where they can share a meal together, meet and discuss in an open non-judgmental way with a group of equals their life and spiritual concerns and find people who care about them as persons. Then they are told: "Sorry this is just the introduction. The real thing happens on Sunday at 10am or 7pm." After a few weeks of attendance they drift off, never to be sighted again, thinking, "this is not what I understood Christianity was all about and is just irrelevant to my life and needs."

We desperately need to see developed new forms of church that are not shaped by the values and forms of Christendom, but by a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and culture of the 21st century. My belief is that these cannot be developed by those of us who have lived in the church for thirty or twenty or maybe even ten years (and so are already shaped by the inherited culture), but must be developed by those who have been brought up in that culture and who have come to faith in Jesus. In other words, we need to change from a 'come' mentality ("this is what we have developed to meet your needs") to a 'go' mentality, where we seek to sow the seed of the gospel in the lives of communities of people outside the established church and see what new forms and shapes that new life creates.

2. The stranglehold of clericalism

Fundamental to 'Christendom' is the distinction between clergy and the laity:

"A professionalized cast of Christians, with its own hierarchical gradations, is separated from other Christians by various forms of ordination and induction."

While the markers of this separation may have changed, from 'priest' to 'senior pastor', from 'Roman tunic' to 'business suit' and from 'confessional' to 'corner office', it is still kept firmly in place. Everyone knows who calls the shots and who gets the money. One of the core value changes of the sixties revolution, as we have seen, was a deep-seated anti-institutionalism. Roof, writing about this in a religious context, notes in his long term research that:

"Boomers in great numbers questioned religious authority when they were growing up and have remained somewhat distrustful of institutions even as they have aged."

While many contemporary churches endeavour to disguise any signs of hierarchy and talk a language of tolerance and 'permission giving', to outsiders they appear dominated by hierarchies and deeply concerned over issues of control. In most churches whether something is allowed to happen or not, whether it is some new venture by the youth group, or a new ministry that someone wants to begin, permission has to be sought from the appropriate authority before it can begin - usually in the end the 'man' at the top. In a culture which encourages you to do your own thing and follow your own dream, people bristle at this kind of control over what often seem to be fairly minor things.

* "Who can tell me who can meet in my home or what we should study?"

* "Why shouldn't a group of us be able to meet together to worship the way we want to when we want to?"

Often people suspect the real issue is that the leaders are afraid of losing control of what people think or do. One of the values that has become central in our culture is that people resent being told what to do by others and want to have a say in decision making. Most innovative and growing companies achieve this by devolving a lot of decision making down to small groups and teams. In most churches, however, there is still a small and central decision-making body dominated by the minister or the staff. Feeling they have no say in what is happening, increasing numbers of thinking church-goers are drifting off, while few are attracted to an organisation which smacks of this kind of control culture.

Another area of great suspicion is in regard to money. It is a regular and seemingly increasing preoccupation of most churches, inevitable given the declining levels of giving among Christians and the increasingly expensive costs of running a church and supporting a ministry. Most people know that the money generally either goes to pay the people doing the ministry, in salary or expenses, or to meet the needs of their own pet projects. In other words, to a society increasingly suspicious of institutions out to get your money to feather the nest of those at the top, the church is not seen as being exempt, particularly when they seem to be endlessly travelling to conferences, visiting missionaries or ministries overseas, and expanding the physical plant of their empire. Indeed, a suspicion that the church is out to get your money ranks high on people's negative perception of church. In a culture where church was central to the social order, and priest or minister performed many important social and cultural functions for society as a whole, a privileged professional class could be warmly regarded, but in today's climate they are so often seen as self-seeking and self-serving. As we look for new forms of church, so we need to look for new forms of ministry that are non-hierarchical, inclusive and non-professional which will loosen controls in church life and free up resources to be used in helping people rather than supporting and meeting the needs of the clergy.

3. The idolatry of church

I recently talked with someone who had just begun as the pastor of a church. He had spent his first period of time meeting with people in the church and asking them how they viewed the church at the moment. What he heard repeatedly went something like this:

"I am just absolutely flat out and stressed out at the moment. My job is taking about 50 hours a week, my wife is working a fairly stressed job and the demands of the children both in their education and leisure activities just seems to increase all the time. And all I ever hear from the church is they want more. We should be supporting their programs more. They want to start off a new ministry and need people to run it. We need to be giving more."

That perspective is not unique to that church. It is a refrain I hear repeatedly from people who are married with significant work and family commitments. I believe that one of the problems we face today is that the church has become an idol. This is a consequence of the church growth and church management approaches which have interpreted the gospel in terms of what happens to the church. It becomes the focus and centre of attention. A church leader in Canada told me:

"We keep asking the wrong question. We keep asking what is the right form for the church. We should be asking what does it mean to be an authentic follower of Jesus today - and the church should take its form out of that."

It seems that so often our preoccupation is with the church instead of following Jesus. We become focused on keeping the institution going, on making it bigger and better, on what is happening at church, inside the institution. It becomes idolatrous, and in the end any idol takes from life rather than gives life. Sadly again, research on church leavers indicates that has been the experience of many, and those looking on from the outside say: "I don't want to have any part of that."

The gospel is not primarily about building the church - it is about following Jesus in life. The church exists in two modes: gathered and scattered. It is gathered when we meet together to worship corporately, to encourage and disciple each other so that when we are scattered in the world we can authentically follow Jesus and so bear witness to him. Jesus is primary, the church is secondary. The problem is we have made the church in its gathered form all pervasive and forgotten that it loses its rationale if it is not primarily resourcing its members for their life when it is scattered. When this happens, people say, as they do in increasing numbers, that it is simply irrelevant to their lives. What is desperately needed is a whole change of perspective about 'church' as an institution (in other words when it is gathered) that actually puts it in its right perspective. It is not that the church in this sense should be demanding that people serve it, but that rather it should be seeking to serve people by resourcing them so that they can live as authentic followers of Jesus in the world, at work, at home, in education or in leisure and so point others to him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described Jesus as "the man for others," the one who was willing to give away his own life that others may live. The church that goes by his name is called to follow his pattern and give away its own life that others may live.

For the church to be the church in New Zealand and Britain in the twenty first century these are, I believe, three of the major issues we need to wrestle with. What will the church be like when it manages to break free of the shadow it has inherited from its form in Christendom, when it is no longer dominated by the control of the clergy and when, rather than demanding that its members serve it, it in fact seeks to serve them so they can live their lives in the world as Christ intended? Peter Brierley, a researcher on the church in Britain, and a deeply committed church person, said to me in an interview that: "I believe we are entering a time of churchless Christianity." What he meant was not that Christianity will no longer exist in communal forms - it inevitably must - but that the forms of Christian community that it will take, will bear little resemblance to 'church' as we have known it. I don't know what exactly it will look like, but I do believe it will be vastly different from the form of even the more innovative of those churches regarded as contemporary. One writer suggests that three key parameters will be that it "privileges open discussion, shared experiences and attention to spiritual development." I believe that this is correct. However, I suspect that the answer does not in fact lie with any of us who are currently in church leadership. Rather I believe it lies with a new generation of followers of Jesus, who have not been shaped by past traditions and practices, but are genuine natives of the contemporary culture, who have been grasped by the freshness of the gospel story and have given their lives to seeking to authentically follow the Jesus they have found there, shaped more by the culture of the wider community in which they live than the culture of the church that has passed that story on to them.

The Revd Kevin Ward is currently a lecturer in practical theology for the Bible College of New Zealand in Christchurch, having been previously a Baptist Minister in two churches and a High School teacher. He has a Masters degree in history and is currently in the final stages of a PhD examining the impact of social and cultural changes on the church in New Zealand 1960-2000. He has a special interest in the relationship of the church and wider social patterns.

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You are reading Christendom, Clericalism and Church by Kevin Ward, part of Issue 28 of Ministry Today, published in June 2003.

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