Sunday, June 3, 2012

We, the Fickled Faithful

This week we learned from some long-time friends that their daughter and son-in-law were leaving the church that my wife and I have been attending for the past year and a half.  This younger couple well preceded us in the church so I really don’t have a good sense as how active they were over the years. I know they were recently serving in a ministry capacity and expressed to our friends their frustration that the church was too divided between the traditionalists and those wanting more contemporary services. This is a church that has two Sunday services, the first pretty traditional and the second contemporary-leaning (I say “leaning” because it’s not alternative or radical by any stretch of the imagination).  So I’ve felt all along the accommodations to the two camps is reasonable and seems to work well. That’s at least as far as Sunday services go. Often those service-style compromises belie the underlying tensions that simmer and bubble over in many, many congregations.  My wife and I attended a church for quite a number of years whose 180 year old history was both a strength and a barrier (or “opportunity” as we’d say in management consulting circles!).  Striving for adjustments and new balances is not an undertaking for the weak of heart and inevitably there are those who do not care for the “imposed” changes that transpire, or even the trend lines they see, or think they see.

But I cast no stones because I’ve been one of these fickled congregants – often.  Even in our current church we have attended faithfully but have not taken the membership plunge. Why?  Aside from the fact that I can be a bit blasé about the need for formal membership in many types of organizations, truthfully, I have to say I enjoy not being in the fray of church leadership, or even committee participation. If I’m a member, I can’t not volunteer, not participate - my inner nag won’t hear of it.  But if I’m NOT a member, we’ll then the nag switch is turned off – or at least it’s in its electronic sleep mode.  Zzzzzzz. Life is good, I think.

Traditions in the context of denominations and church culture are interesting.  I was raised Catholic and think of liturgical services, pastoral vestments, and books and books of written prayers as ultimate expressions of traditionalism. In the late 1970s/early 80s, (and long-departed from the Catholic Church), my wife and I were members of a rapidly growing very contemporary church in our area.  This church was definitely non-traditional – no liturgy, no 18th century hymns, no pipe organ, no choir robes (are you kidding, no choir!). It wasn’t even called a church but ***** Christian Center after the trend that started in California.  We were reinventing Christianity, dude. Get with the program. This church attracted a whole raft of ex-Catholics (big French Canadian Catholic area, us) disillusioned with their own faith traditions, and many who rode the Catholic Charismatic Movement to its end point and were seeking a new church home. So I recall once at the height of this church’s popularity talking with a wise friend (who did not attended this happening church but a more traditional one) about how we were casting off traditions and blazing new roads through the wilderness. “Yeah,” he opined dryly, “but after a few years have passed you’ll forget the reasons why you do something in a certain way, why you pray this, or intone that. Then it will all be just ‘tradition’ and few if any will remember the well-intentioned origins. You’ll be one of the rest.” Wise words, AVI. I’ve not forgotten them all these years.  And that happening church we had so much faith in?  It went through leadership crises, power struggles, unchecked extremism, and finally splintered and dissolved. There’s nothing left of the organization itself – traditional or otherwise. But most of us have held on to our faith, in spite of events and maybe some questionable choices.

The other evening we were discussing faith with good friends, three couples of the PC persuasion (Practicing Christians), and the topic of regrets came up.  What did we regret with respect to faith choices we had made in years past?  Sending our children to Christian schools instead of public school?  Child-raising techniques that some may think too strict? Church failures?   Lots of lively discussions ensued. A week later one of the couples shared they continued to reflect on the regret issue after the evening discussion concluded. Regarding church involvement over the years, they decided they regretted becoming a formal part of leadership (in this case, Elder Board at a former church during a factional period where the pastor was ultimately driven out and the church dissolved into near-nothingness). But they had no regrets about all the volunteering and worker-bee activities they participated in over many years.  And they were as strong as ever in their personal faith.

Amen to that.

8 comments:

james said...

My biggest regret is not sitting down earlier to ask the question: What is church for and what does it do?
I think I could have spared my family some pain if I had, and left one church earlier.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you for the kind words. I may know less now than I did then.

I now think one should just persevere where one is, within reason. I'm not sure what moving around accomplishes. And leadership positions are indeed often a ticket out of church.

As for simmering dissension, if that is true we are about to see it bubble over, now that we are discussing a large building project.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Ah yes, building projects seem to be lightning rods, don't they?

Erin said...

"persevere where one is, within reason"

I'm of that notion, too. We'll never be completely happy anywhere, and barring some serious doctrinal or organizational flaws, what good does leaving do you or the others? If I were to jump ship every time I had an issue with something, I'd do a lot of church hopping. And in New England, that means you run out of options quickly!

Our current church is extremely contemporary, though it was a Baptist church not too long ago. It has made the transition quite well, although from what I've heard, it was an extremely painful one at the time, and many left over the changes through those tough years. I think the key was a solid (from what I've heard) pastoral leader who stood by his decisions in what would be best for the health of the members and the beneficial outreach toward the community.

As an interesting side note, they went from Wachusett Valley Baptist Church to Wachusett Valley Bible Church to the current name, Fellowship Church. Our current pastor, when he told a relative also in the ministry of the latest change, was met with a look of mingled shock and horror at the two word name. "No middle name? But how will people know who you are?!" How indeed.

james said...

Gyrovagues, anyone?

Most of my "church hopping" has been driven by location: new city, new church. But there were two that disintegrated around me--administration issues mostly.

I think some of the "building program" and "music style" arguments are proxies for disagreements on what the role of the congregation is in worship and where the focus of the church should be. (With a few "I've been under this roof 55 years and it's good enough for me" and "That's so 1990's" types to sour the pot a little.)

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Erin - changing the church name from First Baptist to CenterPoint took over two years and "cost" loosing about a third of the congregation. Yankees don't take to change easily!

Jonathan said...

"leadership positions are often a ticket out of church"

Yeah, I'm feeling that....

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Jonathan - Hey, don't let me talk you into anything! Take a couple of deep breaths...