Why Church?

While working professionally as a psychotherapist over the 25 years or so prior to my current pastoral profession inside the United Methodist Church, I saw a few hundred couples for marital counseling. About half never got past the assessment stage, because it became clear one partner wanted to end the marriage rather than save it. Of those who failed to reach 1st base in their therapy, nearly all ended in divorce. Of those who did divorce, I imagine some mix of emotional relief for some and grief for others. Those mostly grieved perhaps remarried in time, while many who felt mostly relieved may still be single today for all I know.

I bring this up because I am guessing there is a similar response among those leaving a marriage and those leaving a church. Many will land somewhere eventually in another church. Some, especially those more relieved than grieved, may never return.

Sociology of religion experts might have some data on hand suggesting children growing up in an unmarried family and those in an unchurched family bring similar resistance to bear in either marrying or joining a church later on in adulthood. If not, I wish someone would research this. If so, I’d not be surprised by the correlation. Nor would it surprise me if kids growing up inside a badly conflicted marriage and those inside a badly conflicted church might shy away from these respective institutions to a greater extent during their own adulthoods. Others will hop from one failure to the next within both institutions.

In today’s post-modern world, many of our social institutions are in turmoil. At first glance, it may appear many of them are failing as numbers show more folks leaving than entering. On second thought, however, I wonder if these institutions will not simply re-invent, re-brand, or otherwise replace themselves in the coming years. May even be that for churches and marriages alike, more straights leaving through the back door will bring more gays in through the front.

Who knows what our institutions will look like later in this century, but I strongly suspect they’ll still be around. Even our churches!!! Why? Because we humans are both incurably social and incurably religious.   We need connection and community, and we need faith in someone beyond ourselves. We need church even when we don’t want it.

As a pastor, I’d love to take church back to the first century just as I’d love for quarreling couples to re-enact their own courtship of attraction when now older and wiser as to the pitfalls they were not earlier prepared to face. If the Church can make its way back to Jesus, remember her first love, I would suggest divorce is not necessary for most church members. But if we fail at that, and many churches will refuse such a revival in relation to the living Word of God in Christ Jesus, then there will inevitably be many divorces to come between churches and members.

But what if we don’t have to fail? Don’t have to divorce? What if we really can re-think Church? Can return to our first love and be Jesus followers again? Can raise children to know Jesus and to know their heavenly Father? As I’ve asked many couples otherwise on the verge of divorce over the years, “wouldn’t this at least be worth a try?”

Half of you will probably say, “no way. I’m tired of trying. I just want out!” And I will understand.

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Is seminary necessary?

Last evening while checking Facebook, I noted a couple posts of particular interest having to do with the Church. One, from my FB friend, Jeff Robinson, spoke to me of his frustration with an evangelical Church that is so rigid as to marginalize his passions as a Jesus follower. Another, from the famed author, Rachel Held Evans (no relation except as my sister in Christ), referencing how seminary may or may not make one a jerk. I’ve not read her new book, “Searching for Sunday,” but her own blogs and FB posts suggest an ongoing search for a Church, whether evangelical or mainline, and a worship experience, whether contemporary or traditional, that is less rigid and more flexible.

Of late, I’ve been reading Joan Chittister’s book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages,” for my morning devotionals. This morning, in Benedict’s chapters 61-63, he dealt with the issue of relational hierarchies within his monastic communities. In my prayer time that followed, I promised God I would blog today on this larger issue of academic credentialing within today’s Church as it relates to my own exercise of faith as a pastor.

So here goes.

As often happens, my own pastoral insights are informed by very little that happened to me in seminary. Wonder if other clergy share that same experience? Far more foundational for me was actually my academic work at OSU back in the mid 70’s in pursuit of my MSW and my subsequent studies in both “structural” and later on “narrative” (post-structural) Family Therapy. It all boils down to how I think about boundaries. And how I think about boundaries informs my understanding of faith in particular, and of churches in general.

Clearly Church carries a higher position than does Seminary in the hierarchy Jesus established to implement God’s Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Truthfully, nothing Jesus said or did even implies a role at all for seminaries within the Church. Perhaps this is because He was a tad bit tired of answering to the Chief Priests who questioned His own academic credentials and authority? Perhaps such reminded Him too much of the Gentile system of Roman rule and rank and privilege. Perhaps He knew far in advance the risks of Seminaries that would crank out jerks who would seem to out-rule and out-rank not only the people but the Heavenly Father, positioning the Kingdom of God somewhat lower than Kingdom of Church. Ever wonder why Jesus is quoted early on in life as being about His Father’s business and not about the Temple Authority’s business? Or why He preferred the title “son of man” and rather consistently privileged the Father in heaven above Himself?

Where at least my own faith is concerned, hierarchies matter. Boundaries matter. Yet, boundaries are dysfunctional (whether in family systems or ecclesiastical) whenever they are too rigid. Flexibility is the key because it brings forth conversation, and conversation creates new narratives through which we grow and develop.

That being said, seminaries do not to me seem necessary except to facilitate conversation aimed at personal and ecclesiastical growth. I credit my own (United Theological) seminary here in Dayton, Ohio for its exemplary “best practices” in doing this. I blame seminaries in general, however, for having turned out far too many jerks over the years who then make rigid the divine / human boundary as well as the human / human boundary that knows not love but only fear. Jerks who silence the voices of Jeff Robinson and so many others like him in their own intentional growth to become more like Jesus for the sake of God’s preferred Kingdom narrative here on earth.

Seminaries? They matter, but only when they work to add flexibility in our divine to human and human to human boundaries. When they otherwise act to add rigidity, to silence conversation, and to freeze old narratives, they are only for jerks.

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