Could apostasy actually be a sign of a healthy church?
Lauren Winner of Duke Divinity School recently considered the situation of writer/director Paul Haggis’ defection from his faith. Haggis bitterly – and publicly – left the Church of Scientology because of his disagreement with them over gay marriage (turns out Scientology is not a fan). Haggis now counts as an “apostate” from Scientology because he has renounced them and their teachings. So why does Winner care at all about any of this? Because it helps her think about her own church (Episcopalian) and the rigor (or lack, thereof) it takes to be a part of it. She writes,
So while I appreciate that my church makes room for patchwork, for doubt, for moving in and out, some days I think: Would that America’s Protestant mainline could produce an apostate. For one might say that a group that lacks the necessary preconditions for making apostates can’t make disciples either.
Now this is a fascinating angle to get at thinking about discipleship – a group isn’t really much good, or good for you spiritually unless it is demanding enough of you that you might leave (or even be pushed out). So…is she on to something? Or is she really romanticizing a certain “rugged” view of Christian community that in fact is coercive and harmful? What do you think?
The American church is quickly “morphing into something new.” This is the conclusion the Barna group drew after analyzing 5,000 interviews conducted in 2010 and identifying the following 6 patterns or “megathemes” from the research. (HT Charles Savelle)
- The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
- Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
- Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
- Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
- The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
- The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
Although I think the research done by the Barna Group is always worth noting, I do worry that their interpretation of the data tends to skew in a notably negative/pessimistic direction. As Bradley Wright argues in his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told: A Sociologist Shatters Myths From the Secular and Christian Media, we need to be much more careful with how we use statistical analysis to draw conclusions about the health of God’s people. So, we may need a more nuanced look at some of these megathemes (particularly the last one).
I’d also like a little more explanation of what it means to say that the church is both “more ingrown” and more “interested in participating in community action” at the same time. Or, how the church can have a greater role in community action and yet still have a largely invisible impact on society. That’s an interesting juxtaposition of themes.
And, I’m a bit surprised by #2. Based solely on the churches that I’m involved with, I would have said that there’s a growing trend toward greater outreach (mainly “soft” evangelism and community action). But, that could be just my limited exposure to the church as a whole.
Nonetheless, these themes are worth reflecting on and clearly identify a number of “systemic” issues that we need to wrestle with today.
- It seems like everyone’s doing a study these days to determine the keys to church health. Now the United Methodists have released their study of 32,000 Methodist congregations in North America, identifying four key areas: “small groups and programs; worship services that mix traditional and contemporary styles with an emphasis on relevant sermons; pastors who work hard on mentorship and cultivation of the laity; and an emphasis on effective lay leadership.”
- Matt Dabbs has a brief reflection on whether Jesus broke the Sabbath, with a link to a longer article on the subject.
- Near Emmaus has been discussing Which of Jesus’ Sayings is Hardest to Accept.
- Larry Hurtado links to another article, “Remembrance and Revelation: The Historic and Glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John“
- The Reformed Reader posts some excerpts from Bavinck arguing that the seven days of creation should be understood as historical but “extraordinary” days. That is, each day refers to a period of creative activity rather than our modern, clock-driven understanding of days as 24 hour periods. (HT Heidelblog)
- And apparently it’s illegal in Russia to force a donkey to parasail over the ocean. Who knew?
- Jim West points out Ligionier Academy and R.C. Sproul are beginning their own undergraduate Bible college. Because what the country desperately needs right now is yet another new Bible college. Jim also points out Israel Finklestein’s web site with lots of good resources in archeology and ANE studies.
- James McGrath has finished his review of The Historical Jesus: Five Views, and has posted a roundup of all his comments.
- A new blog, Wondering Fair, has a post by Dave Benson on using ballroom dancing and perichoresis as an analogy for gender relations.
- Theolog points out a recent Jon Stewart monologue discussing our cultural resistance to a growing Muslim presence.
- According to a new study, the “healthist”, “thriving” churches (measured by attendance, growth, and engagement) are likely to have “a high number of small groups, effective lay leadership, faithful pastors, and both traditional and contemporary services.