Letter to Dave: On the Death of the Church and the idol of success
Po 13 září 2021
(Dave Schmelzer asked in his monthly letter for thoughts on the situation of the Church in America, so I have replied)
So, if you're game, I'd love to ask your thoughts on two things. Do you believe that something has fundamentally gone wrong with the American church? (I'm in forums that do.) If so, tell me more about what that is. And do you perhaps have any thoughts about what the solution might be? That said, if you disagree and you by no means believe that the American church has gone off track, I'd love any thoughts you have on that as well.
If you live elsewhere than America, please forgive the provincialism of my question! But then do help me overcome that provincialism by suggesting a question or two that you'd like to see addressed! And if you have thoughts on which fascinating person you'd like to hear discuss this current question on air with me, I'm all ears.
I don’t think it is provincial to care for your own nation (is “provincial” as an adjective a word?), don’t be ashamed of that. I could talk with you about this for hours, because I was thinking about similar themes lately a lot, but let me add you just couple of points:
Dying church. Jesus Christ promised us only that the Church as whole will not be prevailed by the Gates of Hell (whatever it is), he certainly never promised that each national or local church will live forever. And certainly there are many particular parts of the Church which are gone: the mighty Church of North Africa, once a home of the greatest theologians like Tertullian, Lactantius, Cyprian, and of course St. Augustin, is gone (mostly), whole gigantic Church of East (see https://amzn.com/0061472816 or https://amzn.com/B000ZOMDVU) died its final breath (I am afraid) during our lifetime. The Church in Europe is certainly not dead, I see life wherever I look, but even I can admit that its vitality has been greatly diminished during the last two hundred years or so. Otto Mádr, one of the greatest teachers of the Czech church in the twentieth century (spent fifteen years in the Communist lagers and his releasing documents concluded that “the purpose of his corrective time was completely missed: the prisoner leaves the institution same as he came”, and it was so), wrote a short essay on this topic in 1976 (probably the second darkest time during the Communist era) which I have translated into English.
On the similar note, while living in the European Church with greatly diminished vitality, I was thinking a lot about this question: “What we did wrong?” Specifically, what we Europeans did so wrong, that we have our Church in the state it is? There are many many possible answers and NONE of them persuades me as the plausible one. There are many affirmative answers (yes, we did something wrong which caused all this): too much following modernism/industrial revolution (aka theological liberalism), insufficient following modernism/industrial revolution (aka Biblical fundamentalism), following Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism (one of my favourite causes of all suffering in the current world), and many many others.
However, I am currently more fascinated (although not fully persuaded) by the possibility of the negative answer. No, we didn't do anything wrong, there are just waves of the level of religiosity in history. Sometime it is up (Middle Ages, Baroque in Europe), sometime it is down (Renaissance, Ancient Rome), and Christians role is just to live well in whatever situation they found themselves in (“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”). Yes, it doesn’t sound completely convincing even to me, it is either a cheap excuse (“not our fault”) or those external impersonal forces changing the history look too much like something demonic, but still there seems to me a lot which makes this interesting.
On the other hand, does finding the root cause of all our problems really matter at all? Whatever causes were of the death of the Church in Europe (or upcoming death of the Church in the Northern America) they are wast, complicated, and probably way above anything this little ol’ me can influence. I was preaching two guest sermons during the summer. One (in Czech) was exactly about this, Death of the Church, and other (in English, in our congregation) was about the similar fun theme, the last judgement of believers (1st Corinthians 3:10-15). I won’t certainly repeat everything from the latter one, just one thing: one of the biggest idols we Christians of the current time worship, I believe, is a success.
It seems to be rooted in very complicated idea of meritocracy (see https://amzn.com/0375420835 on the related concept of the status anxiety). Democratic society of the last roughly two hundred years tried to overcome previous class-based structure, where the status was mostly based on your ancestors. They promised new world, where everybody would get everybody what they deserve. I agree that it is much improvement over the previous system, but it has its very very dark side. The sad part of life is that a huge part of every society of every era are people who are unhappy with their life, who feel rightly or wrongly as a failure (and our pop culture doesn’t help, see also your Trump voters and our equivalents of the same on this side of The Pond). Those people got in the feudal aristocratic society a message, that their poor position in life is the result of their ancestors and there is not much to be done about it. Many even lower class communities developed their own level of honour and pride (see British working-class pride who are offended when called gentlemen or ladies). The message in the meritocratic society (and let's ignore for a moment, how the playing field is truly equal and how much reward truly corresponds with the achievements) is quite dark: whatever position in life you've achieved is what you deserved. If you are on the bottom of the society it is because you are worse person than people on the top. Material and financial success became the measure of the quality of one's human life.
However, when you look at the New Testament, I don't see success as the measure of quality of one's life. It seems to me that much more important is faithfulness. The Lord doesn't ask us to be successful, he asks to be faithful. And that applies even to our success as the Church. Does it really matter that much whether we are successful in our spreading of the gospel, or whether we are faithful with bringing the good news to our neighbours?
So, that's just few thoughts on your question.