Monday, January 26, 2009

thinking out loud about church

So our current Adult Education offering (well, one of them--the one I'm teaching) is a study of the book "A New Church For A New World" by John Buchanan.  This past week we talked about how The Church (the institution) interacts with The World.  We talked about three main ways Protestants (and Presbyterians in particular) have interacted with the world--through acts of charity/mercy/compassion, through engaging with social/cultural issues, and through attempts to transform society/politics.  We reviewed church history (from Acts through Constantine through Reformation through to now) and ways the church has engaged the world around (or not) throughout history.

We also talked about whether we are successful as The Institutional Church at engaging The World.  One of the things I said that I didn't realize I thought until I said it (one of the pitfalls of being an off-the-charts E, and think-out-louder) was that something important happened to American Presbyterians in the 16-and 1700s:  the frontier opened and there were many opportunities for sharing the gospel and engaging the new emerging world.  Unfortunately, Presbyterians were still requiring clergy to be educated in Europe (the old world).  At that moment, we lost ground and we lost the ability to engage the new world because our clergy was trained for the old world (and slowly, to boot).  

And I said:  "I'm not sure that we ever caught up."  

I think that might be true, though I hadn't really thought about it before.  I haven't entirely fleshed out this thought, but it does seem that though we (the Presbys) have managed some pretty good things (lots of acts of compassion, missionaries, working for education, etc) and even had a brief heyday in the 40s/50s, we really have no Institutional ability to attempt to engage with social/cultural issues or have political relevance.  I know many (all?) mainline churches are thinking about this, but I just started wondering whether this might actually have started when we made the choice to insist on an old-world education for new-world clergy.

That's as far as the thought goes right now--I keep hoping I'll have more time to contemplate this, but alas other things happen and I don't have the chance to think really.  I do know that what I said at the end of the class, to follow up on thinking about this, is that I think the only way the Church will be able to engage the world in any credible way in the emerging world will likely be one-to-one (like back in the Old Days, aka before Constantine) because Institutions are no longer the primary way of changing the world.


  1. We need to think about form following function, don't we?

  2. What a great class--and such great insights from the teacher!