I don’t think there will be some new age of religion dawning in America anytime soon unless a lot of people change their minds about worship. The dream of progressive Christians whether they call themselves “emergent” or something else will fizzle along with the slowly collapsing evangelical/fundamentalist juggernaut unless the basic mistakes of North American Christianity are addressed.
We can talk about inclusiveness, diversity and making ourselves vulnerable until the cows come home but that doesn’t make religion more interesting or Christianity stronger it simply changes the labels and the shorthand jargon we talk to ourselves in.
The problem with North American Christianity is not the window-dressing– it’s the whole package.
The great weakness of Protestant American Christianity across the board is that by and large it dispensed with liturgy. Having dispensed with liturgy it dispensed with the signposts that point people toward an identity that binds communities together. American Christians have just never admitted it to themselves but the issue is not truth or salvation. For most people who go to church the issue is about community. And community doesn’t work any better than team sports work unless everyone’s wearing the same uniform on your team.
In terms of the practice of Christianity this “uniform” has always been faithfulness to the ancient Eucharistic tradition of Christianity far more than it’s been about creeds of correct belief. Showing up was the deal, not sincerity. The point is there had to be something to show up for that was different than the rest of your life, special, set apart. Otherwise why bother?
In the past Christians were bound together and had a center-point to concentrate on not so much by signing on to belief but by the doing of Christianity. And this “doing” was recognizable and passed down through the ages from grandmother to granddaughter in a form that was as familiar as the shape of the mountains are to someone who grows up in an Alpine village.
People knew what church was not what they were supposed to believe.
The unity came through shared practice and tradition. A funeral always looked like a funeral. A wedding always looked like a wedding. Communion, not sermons ruled the day. It was a matter of heart, not head, practice not content. Sure the priest mumbled stuff but the point was you showed up and it was always reassuringly the same. It was to worship what the Manhattan skyline is to born and bred New Yorkers: home.
Generations of Christians through millennia would have been flabbergasted at the make-it-up-as-you-go-along aspect of modern Christianity that cuts across both fundamentalist and progressive denominations. It would have been as if they had returned from the grave to find all the names of towns, rivers and mountains had been changed and in fact more than that, the landscape itself was bulldozed into an unrecognizable flat desert. It would be like pointing to the Las Vegas “New York” and trying to get someone who grew up on the Upper West Side to believe that this fake stage set was the real deal.
It’s no wonder then that a generation of evangelicals and disgruntled fundamentalists wandering away from evangelical communities have zero idea about what to actually “do” in terms of worship and practice when they start up their own churches as a counterpoint to the bad experiences they suffered through in times past. They may think that they are rebelling against the straitjacket of right wing fundamentalist “culture war” Christianity, but in fact they’re just simply continuing it by other means. The sign posts are still gone. They are still in a head game of ideas about God, not in the world of worship of God. Until forward thinking Christians are willing to look back at what’s been lost no one is going to be able to get anywhere past just being another fad.
What’s been lost is the doing of Christianity.
When progressive Christians, whatever they call themselves, return to the Eucharistic path, the traditional calendar of the Christian year, a sense that a church is not a temple of what’s-happening-now with all the latest attachments but something that was passed down to them, they’ll then be able to pick up where their Puritan forebears went wrong.
The problem is not so much theological as it is practical. While evangelicals argue about the “inerrancy of Scripture” their churches look like everything else in the culture, be it in the music or “nontraditional” spaces. And they get what they pay for: about the same loyalty to their brand as people have to box stores.
All the markers and familiar signposts have been removed so who cares what the preacher is saying or what some half-assed band is playing?
When progressive Christians invent “new” forms of worship they simply dodge one bullet to take another one square between the eyes.
Here’s what’s actually needed:
- Mystery and open-mindedness when it comes to theological content: uncertainty is good
- Rediscovery of Eucharistic sacramental tradition when it comes to forms of worship
- Seeking out the old, the mystical and the monastic as a path to inner stillness
- Abandoning trying to be “modern” in favor of tapping back into the root and branch of worship
- Upholding the expanded ever-growing New Testament principle of freedom and a non-retributive gospel of inclusion by welcoming gays, women and minorities to leadership positions
- Rediscovering and holding firmly to forms of traditional worship that gave Christian bodies our “team uniform” around which to coalesce and build the identity of lasting safe community.
In other words we need to rediscover and return to what never was broken but was stupidly abandoned by “freethinking” evangelical denominations, the Puritans rebelling against kings and bishops, and reclaim the forms of worship where the rough edges have been worn smooth by millennia of usage. We need to use them again not because they will save us or are the “only” way (they aren’t) but because they work!
Two thousand years of history just said “Amen!”
We need to do this at the same time as we lay aside the hatred, culture wars, homophobia, misogyny and all the rest of the conservative judgmental package that comes hotfoot from the hell of the twisted theology of retribution “atonement” and sacrifice.
If we believe in the Jesus who did not come to “die for us” but rather to liberate us to find our true selves in others and yet — at the same time — build communities around ancient worship practices that would be recognizable to any other Christian in history, we’ll be on to something.