Sojourners

A dying Church? or is it Christendom or Christianity? (Part 2)

I left off in part 1 with a discovery.  At 5 almost 6 years old by asking if a friend wanted to come t a VBS I discovered there were people that not only went to church infrequently (this was so in my own extended family), but for whom church had no place at all in their lives.  this friend it turns out didnt even know who Jesus Christ was.

My friend never came to vacation bible School (VBS).  An awareness came to me in this moment in this town where school superintendents, police, the pharmacists, those who made up the volunteer fire department, were members of Kingsburg Covenant church and other congregations in the town (I assume that the mayor and city council were also members of these same Christians congregations in town but I don’t recall ever knowing who was the mayor of Kingsburg ) who was or wasn’t considered a “good citizen” were evaluated by their commitments to these Christian congregations.  This sense of things had no place for someone who had no association at all with these congregations. I had assumed  that in someway everyone even if they didn’t attend church regularly was in the orbit of the christian faith, I had assumed Christendom.  At that moment I both discovered what Christendom was and that there was something outside of Christendom.

Around the same time as this revelation, one communion Sunday, I asked my parents if I could receive communion, I wanted to receive Jesus in the bread and wine.  My parents had me ask Pastor Elving after the service.   Pastor Elving didn’t answer yes or no, but had a conversation with me about why I wanted to receive communion.  I don’t remember what pastor Elving said to me nor exactly what I said to him, I do remember sharing the desire to receive Jesus.  I was told later (i don’t remember Pastor Elving saying this) that I had a better understanding of Communion than many adults.  I was impatient for the next communion Sunday,  and it began to feel odd to me that we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday.  In communion and in the caring concern of Pastor Elving our moment of shared faith in the presence of Christ in bread and wine was another moment of Church that transcended the particular practices of that particular congregation though it was also mediated and manifested in that congregation and through the Pastoral office as Pastor Elving embodied it.

I can say then that my experience was uneven, and I can’t  imagine what would have happened had my parents and Pastor Elving had dismissed my longing for the body of Christ expressed in the desire to share in the bread and the cup.  I do remember thinking it odd that the adults seemed perfectly content to receive Christ only once a month. Christian opinions about guarding the specialness of this symbolic meal were repeated possibly whenever I asked for an explanation.  This opinion didn’t seem to fit with the words spoken, with the solemnity with which Pastor Elving prayed and spoke over bread and wine, the seriousness with which he questioned my desire to receive.  There was no affirmation of encounter with something that could not be diminished by the frequency of the encounter, no sense of  the need for this mystical abiding through physical and ordered means, which I’m here naming church.

When we moved from Kingsburg to Los Angeles as I began Confirmation, the Covenant congregation we ended up going to (because my sister and I liked the youth and children’s programs ), I discovered Christianity without Christendom.  Many of my pears connection to the faith was fairly shallow in comparison with the many layers of Church, Christianity and Christendom of Kingsburg.  They went to church because their parents went and they were told they had to come.  That in the gathering was needed spiritually, that in coming together with other members of the Body of Christ that one was then formed into Christ, that in church one encountered God and Christ in each other and in bread and wine was largely either unimportant or unknown among most of my peers.  Attending church seemed meaningless to them, at least form my sense of gathering to encounter God.  It was here to that for the first time since nursery that I was segmented off into my age group and no longer regularly was in worship with my parents.

I experienced these distinct and overlapping entities: Church, Christianity and Christendom.  As I’ve interpreted it and recollected this experience, Christianity and and Christendom are partially negative aspects of my experience of Church.  I’d argue that Christianity and Christendom were only negative in their decadent and decaying interactions.  The web of connections between family, congregation, other Christian congregations in the town of Kingsburg and the influence Christianity had upon the civic and social fabric of the town created for me a unified world that was positive and life affirming.  In many ways this entire experience was ecclesial.  Yet there were always cracks in that world.  As I discovered not only a world beyond the institutions of Christendom but also came to realize that for many in congregations (including some of leaders ) that what was for  matrix and life was for them about keeping boundaries,  following rules, and believing propositions, i could have concluded that the Church was nothing but a human institution. Yet I didn’t come to that conclusion, because something in my experience, whichis hard for me to put my finger on, lead me to see the difference between these three things: Christendom, Christianity, and Church.  Only one of these was needful, life giving, and about life,  that one thing is the Church.  Church was manifest and transcended every local instantiation of it i have experienced. In some local instantiation, I must also admit that the Church was hardly present.  It’s possible that many people know Christianity and Christendom but haven’t a clue about this thing called Church the Body of Christ, and I suspect that much of this talk about death of Church is really the uncovering that not every group of Christians is the Church.

 

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.