Mother Church

Are Christian trends the trends of the Church?: Christian, Christendom and Church, once again.

David Hayward, the Nakedpastor, reflected upon Ed Stetzer’s post on current trends around the term Christian and the statistics of the identity.

Stetzer is concerned that congregations (churches/denominations?) don’t see the decrease in self identification as Christian as an indication of the death of the church.  Hayward’s concern is for how this explanation of the decline of self-identification as Christian will create isolationist congregations and groups of “pure” Christians.  He doesn’t come out and say it but I hear behind Hayward’s concerns that this will exclude people of faith and spirituality that could be nurtured by a more open approach to these trends.  Stetzer, doesn’t think his Convictional Christians nor his analysis will lead to the negative and isolationist fears of Hayward.

From my perspective Haywards critique of Stetzer’s article is based on a concern for a narrowing of the term Christian and thus of drawing the lines around church too closely.  I’m less clear on where Stetzer wants to take us in relation to these statistics, though he objects to Haywards pointing out the potential negative conclusions one may draw from Stetzer’s analysis.

This interchange seemed to fit in my own recent attempts to get at some clarity on what Christian, Christendom and Church are and how I’ve experienced them in these blog posts, here and here.

One might place my attempts to distinguish between Christian and member of the Body of Christ in Stetzer’s category of the “convictional Christian”, or Hayward’s group of “pure” Christians. But that would be to mistake my ecclesiology, my attempt to distinguish is seeking to live out my baptism, to be aware of the continuity between the apostles and us now.

My guess is that Stetzer and Hayward have similar starting places for their respective ecclesiologies.  Hayward though has a concern (like I have) for those beyond the walls of our Christian institutions (again note I wish to avoid the term church, this has to do with my ecclesiology which leads me to hesitate to equate all current Christian institution with the Church). Stetzer’s  concern is for those who are in and loyal to these Christian institutions denomination and congregation. Or more charitably concerned about how those in the institutions relate to those outside the congregations and denominations.

At this moment things get a little fuzzy for me: what do Hayward and Stetzer mean by “church” or “The Church”?  In following Hayward at a distance I get the sense that “Church” for him is a non-specific spiritual reality that could also simply be called community.  My guess (and I will admit being almost entirely unfamiliar with Stetzer’s body of work, I know him only by reputation) is that Stetzer would use church and congregation interchangeably and may apply “Church” or The Church to all throughout time who are “true”(however that is defined) followers of Christ.  Yet, I would guess that being genuinely Christian is probably more important to both authors then having  clarity on the nature of the Church.

What I’m trying to get at is to contrast Hayward’s and Stetzer’s approach to the space I’m attempting to clear here in Ecclesial Longings.  I’m less and less concerned about the term Christian, who claims it or whether they are cultural, nominal or convictional.   Based on my reflections and the heuristic I’m seeking to develop I’d argue that Stetzer and Hayward are in differing ways concerned with Christendom.

Christendom is the  space in which Christian belief (of some kind) and Christian institutions (possibly including the Church) form part of the basis and fabric of a particular society or culture.

If this is a solid definition of Christendom, Stetzer’s categories of Christians are actually categories of types of people in Christendom.  If Christendom in our context is collapsing or disappearing, then it’s not surprising that the various types of Christian are also disappearing.  The convictional Christian would also eventually disappear or as Stetzer’s own article suggest simply be all Christians, once the collapse and shift from Christendom is complete. Stetzer doesn’t seem to admit that this collapse of Christendom is what makes Christian identity meaningless to “nominal” and “congregational” Christians.  But also this shift removes the structures upon which most Christian institutions depend upon.  Hayward seems to want to in some sense preserve a form of Christendom, that is keep the church with some influence upon the wider culture.  Stetzer is willing to envision a context where the church has lost its cultural influence but doesn’t (in the article) reflect upon that the institutions of convictional Christians are institutions that are in terms of their form and structure dependent upon the existence of Christendom.    For the local congregation, this is shown in that as “nominal” and “congregational” Christians cease to be those identify as Christian and leave these congregation the congregations and denominations no longer have the ability to maintain structures, programs bureaucracies and buildings all built at the heyday of American Christendom.

All of these trends can be talked about without reference to the Church as Body of Christ.  Why is this?  I think it is because for Hayward and Stetzer church is simply the community of individuals who identify as Christians (Hayward may want to name church as all those who identify as spiritual).  I’d argue this understanding of church fails to see the Church as something that encompasses and transcends individuals who make it up, like Paul’s metaphorical language of church as Body.  Like the affirmation of church as Mother.  Taking these mystical and material affirmations seriously, I’m less concerned about who’s a Christian, or how inclusive or exclusive we are. My concern is with seeking to be part of and lead others into the physical, historical and transcendent reality of the Church.

I have a suspicion that much American Christianity isn’t in that continuity and is more concerned about being right than being formed into the mystical Body of Christ.  Neither a tightening of the ranks nor seeking to be as open as possible are the way to be formed as the Body of Christ. In that search it is good to be aware of the demise of Christendom and the trends around Christian identity but none of that gets to the heart of the matter for one who has an ecclesial longing.

My stab at a definition here: The Church is that which is in spiritual and historical/material continuity with the Apostles and Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is formed by God and who has as its head Jesus Christ.

If your interested Steve McSwain has a year old series of posts in this arena, the first of which can be found here.  Though here in this review of one of McSwain’s book’s I recommend taking him with a grain of Salt.

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.