Saturday, January 07, 2006

A spiritual revolution?

According to George Barna. Here's Christianity Today's take on his new book, "Revolutions: Finding vibrant faith beyond the walls of the sanctuary."
Storm the barricades! According to researcher George Barna, we're in the midst of a "spiritual revolution that is reshaping Christianity, personal faith, corporate religious experience, and the moral contours of the nation."

Who's leading the coup d'état? Some 20 million people, dubbed Revolutionaries, who live "a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, and simplicity" and who "zealously pursue an intimate relationship with God."

If true, this is amazing news, the best for American Christians in generations.

But before we break out the party poppers, we should note that, like every revolution, this one has a loser: the local church.

Unlike the Great Awakenings, which brought people into the church, this new movement "entails drawing people away from reliance upon a local church into a deeper connection with and reliance upon God." Already "millions of believers have stopped going to church," so Barna expects that in 20 years "only about one-third of the population will rely upon a local congregation as the primary or exclusive means for experiencing and expressing their faith." Down will go the number of churches, donations to churches, and the cultural influence of churches.
Well, there you have it. Evangelical Christianity taken to its extreme. Why bother with the Church (as in a visible, united body with common practices, traditions, doctrine and governances), when you can just do your own thing locally. But hey, why bother even with the local thing, when you can just, well, do your own thing. Congregations and parishes are so passé. Ho hum. Twentieth century, you know.

Are you worried about the church where you were baptized, taught, married, and given Communion? That's only a "congregational-formatted ministry," one of many ways to "develop and live a faith-centered life. We made it up." Writes Barna, "Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God)." He doesn't reveal God's expectations for church involvement, but they don't seem hard to get over.

Barna illustrates with two fictional characters who "eliminated church life from their busy schedules." Why? They did not find a ministry "that was sufficiently stimulating" and "their church, although better than average, still seems flat." Too bad for the lowly local church that people today insist on having "unique, highly personalized church experiences."

So where are the Revolutionaries going? To "mini-movements" such as home schooling, house churches, Bible studies at work, and Chris Tomlin worship concerts. What matters is a godly life, so "if a local church facilitates that kind of [godly] life, then it is good. And if a person is able to live a godly life outside of a congregation-based faith, then that, too, is good."
The CT-reviewer narrows in on the source of the problem:

Not that I'm blaming Barna. His book merely reveals every thin spot in evangelical ecclesiology. We flamingly disregard 2,000 years of guidance under the Holy Spirit. We elevate private judgment above the collective wisdom of apostles, martyrs, reformers, and saints.

Granted, Christianity has always accepted non-congregational forms. Consider the fourth-century hermits who fled to the Egyptian desert. But precisely because those loose gatherings of ascetics fostered so many problems—including pride and dissension—John Cassian and others formed them into communities that were committed to the sacraments and under spiritual authority. In other words, Christianity has welcomed non-congregational forms, and it will welcome many created by today's Revolutionaries, but Christianity has wisely reserved the central and essential place for the local congregation.
But, I guess, that's not hip-enough, eh?

However, there's one point that I can concur with:

The third question: Is this Revolution motivated primarily by the Spirit of God, advancing the kingdom beyond the walls of the stiff and often ineffective local congregation, or by the anti-institutional and individualistic drives of our time? Barna argues the former, and in the book's strongest chapter, he provides a relentless statistical indictment of the local church's failure to develop mature disciples. Barna is rightly incensed at the low level of spiritual maturity in the American church: "As the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job."
And if this is a problem in evangelical congregations, I would hazard that it's an even greater issue in your local Catholic parish. I mean, what does your average parish do to develop mature disciples, and not just a Catholic sacramental consumer?


Mark Mossa, SJ said...

Don't dismiss this too quickly. Though perhaps Barna takes it too far, we can even see this in the Catholic Church these days. Where is the energy in the Church? Is it in the local parish? No, it's the movements in the Church which are most vibrant. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Europe. It's less clear in the US where large numbers of people still attend their local parish.

Gashwin said...

Well -- I wasn't dismissing Barna's conclusions (that such a group of people exists. Though the CT reviewer is a little skeptical about his numbers there), but more this idea of dissociation from the local congregation.

I think you and I would both agree on the lukewarm nature of parish life in general, and yes, the movements are what's keeping the Church alive in Western Europe. However, the movements are not the same thing, I think, that Barna is talking about -- while separate from the parish, they're pretty communal, and not as oriented to the "individual church experience" as what Barna is describing (and lauding and pushing as portents of things to come).

As to what should a Catholic pastoral/ministerial response to such trends be? That's a whole another post ... but I don't know that we should ape everything about the megachurches and risk losing sight of the centrality of community to being Catholic (not that you, or Barna or anyone else is advocating this).

Besides, I don't know that it's inevitable that the US will go Europe's way. Though, I'm no expert in sociological prognostications by any means.

co-ray said...

Europe's not out of the game yet.

It can't hold its nose in a sea of religion forever. I give it forty years: Vive la Frankistan.

ok, ok.

Gashwin said...

Co-ray: tou-ché