Identity Crisis, Not Structural Crisis

A couple of friends pointed out an interesting blog entry by Walter Russell Mead (son of Loren Mead) titled The Holy Crap Must Go. Mead notes the troubled finances and struggles for existence of many congregations, church bodies, and seminaries. Seminaries have been closing. Regional and national church budgets have been shrinking or strained. Many congregations skate along and spend large portions of their resources on merely maintaining themselves and their property (and often barely keep the heat on or the roof from leaking). There is much to be said about the factors involved in this. There is certainly changes in demographics and the continuing flow of people out of rural areas into cities. And there are cultural changes that have their impacts. Analysis of this may well be fruitful, but can also all too easily lead in circles without any clear answers or directions emerging.

But Mead’s purpose is not explanation of how we got here, but a thesis for where to go from here. He correctly notes that our regional and denominational structures will need to be smaller. It is quite clear that the levels of staff and expenses now consumed are not sustainable. We may well have too many seminaries (this is most certainly true about the ELCA). And our models for how congregational property and staffing are probably overly burdensome. We’d be wise to move to learner structures and staves sooner rather than later, preferably by choice rather than when in full crisis mode. But this structure is not the fundamental problem of the church. In my opinion, it is more of a symptom than the illness itself.

Identity Crisis

The problem with the church in America today (by this I mean mostly the mainline churches) is not the “holy crap” but an identity crisis. It’s not all that unlike many institutions today. The church floats along on programs and procedures without a good idea of what it is. Some propose that we need to concentrate on mission, have a purpose, or the like. And that isn’t wrong. But it quickly obscures the root of our problems. These approaches are largely another version of the program and procedure with a different flavor. It might be a good and faithful program, but the question of what the church is remains nebulous.

Think of the way we so often define ourselves by our job or profession, or by a family role. But what if that work or role is removed from us? What if we are no longer able to fill that position? What becomes of our self-understanding and self-meaning? The bottom can so easily drop out from under us if we lose these roles. The church is in the same boat. Al the missional congregation and purpose-driven programs merely describe the church by its occupation. At its worst, this occupation seems to be little more than self-reflexive busy work with little purpose or meaning beyond perpetuating itself.

Perhaps, then, it is little wonder that our synods, presbyteries, districts, and diocese are experiencing strain in so many ways. They too have become defined by occupation which only begets more occupation while many wonder what all those staff people could possibly be doing, or why it is at all important. With a few exceptions (such as support for global missions) the same applies to national church organizations.

Not Purpose, But Identity Driven Organization

We do need to find a new way to organize ourselves. Perhaps it won’t look all that different than what Mead proposes. We will see regional and national organizations significantly different than what we have now. But we should also not confuse that coming reality with a supposed death of denominations. Congregations may also see how pastoral ministry is provide shift a great deal as well. But all this needs to flow from a renewed understanding of who we are and what the church is. Please note the verbs. I used the verbs “are” and “is” not “do” and “does.”

Of course how we understand what we are and what the church is will greatly affect what we do and how. But to concentrate too much on the doing now is to put the cart before the horse.

Mead’s approach is not unlike any number of voices calling for renewal and reform of the church and the way we do church. (Notice, again, the verb.) Essentially, it is all about getting down to practicality. Seminaries are to be faulted for teaching too much about academic subjects: biblical studies, history, and theology. More emphasis should be given to the “practical” and thus proposals for variations of apprenticeships rather than seminary degrees.  All this as if theology and biblical studies are distractions from the actual work and activity of the church!

Having arrived at such a position really betrays that it is all about doing without really understanding the identity of the church. It give evidence that we define our church by occupation rather than who we are. This way lies no solutions to our crisis, only more turning of wheels and dashed expectations and hopes for a better future for our religious communities.

What Is the Church?

I don’t have an answer to that question. But it is the question we must be asking ourselves before we propose new structures and activities. There are many possibilities when searching for an answer.

We are called to care for our neighbor and to reflect God’s love in the world around us. Are we to understand the church, then, as primarily a social ministry organization? We are called to share the good news of Christ Jesus with the world. Are we then to understand that the church is primarily an evangelistic organization whose primary purpose is to recruit people to, in turn, recruit more members? We are called to care for the souls and well-being of our fellow brothers and sisters. Does that mean that the church is mostly about helping people to be psychologically and spiritually healthy?

There are many other things that we could note about our calling as Christians in the world, for the biblical claim on us is about our whole lives, and wonder if that is what the church is all about.

But still, we’d be stuck with looking at what the church does, rather than what it is. It’s not an easy question. We need to avoid clichés like simply knowing whose we are. And we are programed culturally to look toward doing rather than being for such definitions. But at least seeking some thing like an answer is indispensable if we are to decide what kinds of facilities (or lack of facilities) will serve the church and its mission, and how we might staff our ministry, be it by professional paid staff, volunteer church members, individuals living out their faith in daily life, or a combination of these and more.

What I can definitely say is that any way we might seek to answer the question “what is the church?” that will be worthy of the name church will pay a great deal of attention to theology, biblical studies, and the quest for meaning and understanding of these things. It might even pay a good deal of attention to our identity in worship and to the sacraments. Theology and biblical studies, however derided as impractical academic matters, are important and we’d be fools, to say the least, to diminish their roles.


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  1. 1

    Thanks for this post. There needs to be many more things written like this. I responded to Mead’s and your post at my own blog and you might find it of interest: