The Irrelevance Of Faith
I remember a time when churches were full on Sunday mornings. I remember when my home church, now dead and gone, had so many in attendance they’d set out extra chairs for people to sit in. The mighty sound of a full and full-throated choir bouncing off the hardwood and stained glass was powerful. People greeting one another after worship in long queues, across generations, smiling and thankful to be together.
I’m not saying I remember some golden age to which I wish to return. I’m just saying I remember a time when faith, a life of faith, the practice of faith still meant something. More than anything, such memories mark me as a bit older than I’d care to admit.
When I started Seminary, it was at the point in our local and national life when the decline of active church membership, and church membership at all, was starting to be noticed. Even as there were whispers and guarded discussions about what was happening, by and large our education was preparing us for a world that was disappearing far more rapidly than we could imagine, let alone wanted to admit to ourselves. There’s a saying that our military is always preparing for the last war. I guess it’s true with training our pastoral leaders: We’re getting them ready with old tools and skills for a world with new challenges, new dangers, and always always always the promise of something new happening.
Like anyone else entering middle age, the world around us is becoming less and less about us. The things we knew when we were younger are as dead as the past from which we dredge up memories of overflowing pews on Sunday mornings and a louder voice in our local and national affairs. Of all the new challenges with which we must deal, perhaps the most perplexing is the reality that for more and more people, the whole church-thing, God-thing, all the trappings of a bygone era are no more relevant than are tail fins on cars or touring with the Grateful Dead. It isn’t so much militant atheism with which the church must contend as it is a growing number of people who just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Meaning? Purpose? These things can be found in all sorts of organizations, life-ways, occupations, without all that weird metaphysical baggage that no longer makes any sense in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular age. We in the churches speak of Good News in a world that just no longer thinks it needs it.
A lot of churches, local and denominational, fall back on upholding old truths, drawing far more strict lines about who’s in and who’s out, demanding even greater adherence to doctrinal formulae and theological methods that, for all they once fed the multitudes are no so many empty baskets, ignored by those fed by other means. We now not so much invite as demand people come and see and hear and adhere and submit and their lives will have an overarching meaning, purpose, and telos that extends beyond the fragmented eternal nows that are the hollow substance of post-modern time. There are some, perhaps many, who find comfort and strength within such gated church communities. Upholding the past as true and the present as false offers a rock upon which to stand, someplace solid upon which to build a life of verities in the midst of a world that no longer cares about such things.
For every family that finds refuge within such seemingly solid structures, however, there are five, perhaps ten, that see these attempts at reconstructing a dead age for what it is – not a fortress within which one is safe from the world, but a Potemkin village, empty of anything other than those who admire the beautiful facades without caring how flat and false they are. Seeing this in abundance, all too often they look upon all churches as such false fronts, holding no promise, no message, no possibilities that cannot be found far better elsewhere. What these growing number of people see and hear isn’t so much Good News as it is a bunch of old words and promises for something no longer thought possible – safety and security in the midst of our chaotic world.
Is it necessary, or even possible, to reach such people? How do we in the churches who do not accept the crumbling sand of the same old thing and the incomprehensibility of so much of our talk about ourselves and our God still answer what we feel to be a call to tell the world there really is Good News? How do we live and practice our faith in a time when the very idea of “faith” is something about which fewer people care? These are the realities our churches face, the wall that separates us from those around us: we recognize the irrelevance of emptiness of so much of our talk, our ways of worship, our ways of living yet understand ourselves caught up in something the compels us to declare that God is, God is love, and God’s love extends to all creation.
I know I wasn’t educated or trained for such a world; I think our church leaders, those of my generation, weren’t either. We still read Bonhoeffer and Barth, Tillich and Niebuhr as if they were contemporaries, rather than oracles to a world that, even as we read their words, were receding more and more quickly. We thought Cone and Daly, Reuther and Gutierrez were radical when in fact they were no more than prophets to institutions unsuited to the challenges their messages announced. Ours is a world – truly a world – made up of neighborhoods. Whether we call them countries our states or even our local towns and villages, any global view always ends up zooming in on our increasingly nonhegemonic society, in which white and male faces no longer dominate; where love is greater than we thought, watching as same-sex couples celebrate blessed unions and state-sanctioned marriages; communities where the ravages of centuries of racism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism of all kinds have left indelible scars, requiring more than just good intentions and open minds and open hearts not only to overcome, but to accept the scars as a permanent part of our social, cultural, and political landscape. These and more are the new realities which confront our local churches, demanding an answer to the challenge, “With all this, why should I care about what you have to say and do?”
I’m not sure we yet have the tools to even begin searching for an answer, beyond recognizing the reality of the urgency of the question. I know our current generation of leaders weren’t given the tools with which to work toward anything like an answer. At the same time, I also know this is where we are, this is what our churches face, and if we do not even recognize the irrelevance of our claims to having something called “faith” that is vital to our lives and identities, we may very well wither and die. Falling back on false “timeless truths” is no answer, not really; it’s a reaction born of fear. We need to do and say something new in new ways, trusting that something beyond our own fears is giving us the ability to keep going.