Truth, relevance and Church

I’ve been listening to Dr. Dog, a band I knew existed for a while, but whom I had never listened too. That was probably a mistake…not listening, I mean. They’re great, and sort of insightful. Especially the song I posted below, and particularly the line in the song that goes “Who am I to tell the truth/when I don’t even know what it is.”

I’ve been reading a lot of books on the transformation that’s happening with American religion, and particularly mainline protestant Christianity. David Kinnaman, in You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith deals with (surprisingly…) why young people who grew up going to church are leaving; Diana Butler Bass writes about how shifting patterns in larger social systems are affecting the church in Christianity After Religion; and Phyllis Tickle writes about historical shifts in religious thought in The Great Emergence.

On top of this, I joined my church a few weeks ago in a Hope Partnership retreat, which is a program designed by several of the General Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to help congregations discern new patterns in ministry need in the world.

What do all of these have in common? No one really has an answer. There are a lot of questions, and not a lot of explanations or conclusions. The church, it seems, is at a place where it has lost sight of its’ own reason for existence. If you were to ask me why the church exists the way it does, I might tell you, as did the singer in Dr. Dog, “who am I to tell the truth when I don’t even know what it is?”

I clearly believe there’s a reason the church needs to exist (proclaiming the gospel)…I’m not not quite sure what that reason is in practice. And from the discontent with institutional religion, at least how it’s been done for the past few decades, there’s need for change. But does anyone really know what that change should be?

Questions…and no answers. Only, it doesn’t feel like we’re waiting for some game show host tell us we’ve won a new car (or Carl Kasell’s voice on our answering machine). There’s not somebody keeping the answer from us…there just isn’t an answer right now.

And so, in the midst of uncertainty and lack of clarity, here’s a question I’m asking myself now:

Where is the right line between financial/numerical success and faithfulness to the gospel?- I’ve heard people start saying that while seats in the pews and a big budget aren’t the goal of church, they are signs that the church is doing something well. Only, the mega church down the road intentionally projects a hyper-masculine ministry (think Mark Driscoll) in order to draw in men (the hardest demographic to get in the pews). Once the men are in, the families almost always follow. And this model has worked to tremendous numerical/financial success. I’ve been to men’s groups that function this way too: they try to project a certain maleness, manifested in jokes about boat-shows and how the men’s group is great because it gets husbands away from the “ball and chain” at home (I’m not really making this up; I’ve been to men’s groups where this is the language used).

It’s true that men don’t go to church as much as women, and it’s true that hyper-masculinity is on the rise, not decline, evidence by high NFL attendance/viewership and the larger conversations regarding violence in the sport (and the debate over the necessity of violence in the sport). It would make sense that if the church is going to be relevant, it would try to tap into this image of masculinity to attract the people most likely to skip out on church. Only, doesn’t the church have a role in speaking out against a culture of violence at all levels, including professional athletics?

I’d bet money that most churches will mention the game this Sunday without thinking twice about the negative cultural effects. And I am in no way immune to this; I’d probably mention the game as well because people will recognize it and identify with it. It will make church feel familiar, comfortable, and relevant.

What is the line between culturally relevant and prophetic? How much do we try to be relevant at the cost of faithfulness? And who decides what faithful is? I can speak out all I want to about the problem with masculinized religion (think “Muscular Christianity”) but if popularity is how we measure truth (I don’t think it should be, but it is crassly democratic) then the church down the road with their super bowl themed service, their big screen tv’s, their ministries where men-can-be-manly, are winning. Can I only have a financially/numerically strong church if I’m willing to sacrifice my understanding of the gospel along the way? And is truth true because I say it is, or because a lot of people have decided it is?

This all leads to the giant question in my mind: How to we, as the church, remain relevant enough for people to feel comfortable and connected, while also working towards a better world? How do we affirm Football as the most popular American sport, something the majority of people connect with, while also questioning some of it’s more sinister traits?

And so, how do we discern the difference between faithfulness and relevance? How do I/we speak truth when I’m/we’re not even sure what it is?

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