A dying Church? or is it Christendom or Christianity? (Part 1)

The Anglobaptist brought to my attention the Sojourners blog series “Letter’s to a dying Church”(I  haven’t read all of them but I’ve read a few).  At Tripp’s blog, I’ve said that I agree with those that are saying (some of them in their “letters”, that it’s not the church that is dying but Christendom or Christianity.  I’ve made these distinctions here before.  There’s a key difference between these three entities and phenomena.  but I do see in what I’ve read and in the Sojourner chosen title for this series a tendency to conflate these three, and use in the very least Church and Christianity as synonymous and  thus conflate the Christian religion with the Body of Christ.

I want to focus on this confusion of related but distinct entities, because the title of this series and some of the responses show an inability for a clear path of thinking regarding our predicament.   Thus, as I see it the title of  this series and many of the letters only deepen our confusion and our hopelessness.

But in the spirit of Sojourners letters, I will  take a personal rather than theoretical or philosophical theological approach.   I will in a very American way talk about my experience of these three entities and phenomena, as I have encountered them in the local congregation of my upbringing, Kingsburg Covenant Church in the Central Valley of California, and in the my denomination of my birth, baptism, confirmation, and ordination, The Evangelical Covenant Church.

The place where I remember my nurture in the Faith was a largely Swedish congregation with roots in the Lutheran Pietist Tradition, Kingsburg Covenant Church.  But it isn’t where my story began.  It began in the suburbs of Chicago, At Winnetka Covenant Church, There I was Baptised into the Body of Christ. There community and family deliberately and through sacrament handed me over to another reality: a reality  in which they shared, Christ and the Church.    Before  I was able to take in who I was in relation to family, or nation, or any other human association I was delivered from the tyranny of all those identities, and could hold them or leave them in light of being in Christ.  This is of course a very adult and post seminary and theologians summary of what was implicit in the matrix of my early years.  On some level it was a very simple weekly or more often event.  On a regular basis I was entrusted to those with whom I had no familial connection, who didn’t live in the same neighborhood as my family, many of whom I saw only in this place, but experientially it was clear I was theirs, and my parents left me with them in this place called the nursery.  I don’t remember anything about my time at Winnetka Covenant church. Yet,  Baptism changed me, transferred me to a parallel and other actuality in which my parents were also embraced and nurtured, in that place we were all children… children of God.

Winnetka Covenant church and Kingsburg Covenant church provided me this sense of Church as Mother, the matrix in which we all lived together as Christ’s, as God’s children, fellow heirs with Christ.  I learned this in the nursery.  It was at Kingsburg Covenant Church that I first became aware of my nurture in the faith through two members of the Body of Christ, a married couple who in my nursery days were always working in the nursery, showing us toddlers the love of the Church and of Christ.

For a time in the small town of Kingsburg (my mother’s home town) church, family (my grandparents and 2nd cousins and other distant relatives all went to church together) and community seemed like a unified whole.  My best friend and I saw each other in church, we went to preschool and then kindergarten together, I knew others in town went to other congregations, and that some thought less of some of those other groups, but mostly it seemed to me that all of us were Christian, the reality of the Church, my matrix bled out from those gathered on a Sunday and encompassed my sense of the entire city of Kingsburg.  Here is the realm of Christianity and Christendom in my early childhood experience.   As a child it was largely irrelevant whether or not those other Christians experienced, Christ and the nurture of the church and love of Christ as I did.  I most likely assumed they did if the it ever crossed my mind to wonder? I don’t think it did.

However, my awareness of Christianity and Christendom as distinct from Church as Mother and nurturer of my faith and of my self in God and Christ, came in conflict and a jolt to awareness that not all had my experience of God, Christ, Church and our civic community.  This awareness came about the same age at 5 or six, it came in school, Sunday School, and at the end of my Kindergarten year, so I was almost six.

In Sunday school there were a few teachers who insisted that the children had to say the prayer of faith (my recollection it was the minority of teachers) to become Christians and be saved.  I had experienced the love of Christ in his Church and through that nurture had faith in God and Christ, to the extent a 5 or 6 year old could. The insistence on “the prayer” was just pure nonsense.  I don’t know if this is a supposition based on later life experience or something I experienced then, but I have a sense that for those teachers my refusal was a cause for concern born out of fear not love.  From these well meaning Sunday school teachers, I encountered  a form of Christianity separate from the church as Mother and the Sacraments.  We had to come to God by this isolated expression of faith.  This notion was coercive. Not as coercive as some other contexts, but it was assumed that those of us children who had not said the prayer lacked something.  The saying of the magic words disconnected from relationship or sacrament would make all the difference.  Having felt the embrace of God through the love of the church through having passed through the waters of Baptism this Christianity had little appeal to me.  They wanted me to meet God, but couldn’t see that I was living in the womb of God, the Church.

I encountered Christendom  when I asked a friend from Kindergarten to come to Vacation Bible School.  My friend didn’t know anything about church, or the Bible.  he understood vacation and school (and they seemed like contradictory concepts to him), but Bible and going to church even Jesus Christ were unknown to hi., It was that moment that I discovered a world outside of Christendom: the Chrsitian familial and civic connections that had up and until that point made up my understanding of the city of Kingsburg.   In part 2 I will talk about this discovery of Christendom in the negative, and of a Christendom on its way to it’s death, at least in California in the 1970’s.