Tag Archives: institutional church

Are You “DONE” With Church? (Part One)

You’ve been an active member of a church all your adult life, giving generously of your time and money. You’ve been right in the middle of church life since you can remember, within the leadership, perhaps, or even as a staff member. You’ve listened to hundreds of sermons, attended countless committee meetings, showed up at prayer breakfasts, choir practices, and planning meetings. You’ve been a member of the worship ministry, education ministry, building and grounds ministry, finance ministry, tech ministry, involvement ministry, and more. And all along you thought you were serving the Lord and making a difference. But now you are not so sure. You’re tired, disillusioned, and ready for a change. You gave it your best, but you’re DONE.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend, a sincere believer, who falls into this category. He no longer attends a church. He’s done with the traditional way of doing church. He recommended that I read a book about people like him:

Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are DONE With Church But Not Their Faith (Loveland, CO: Group.com, 2015).

My friend kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I read it immediately. I am not going to do a full book review in this post, but I do want to condense its basic message. Church Refugees summarizes the findings of a qualitative study of 100 interviews with people who have stopped attending traditional/institutional churches. Most of these people had been very active in their churches, and 20% had been in volunteer leadership positions or on staff. They are not part of the growing segment of the population with no religious convictions, the so-called “Nones,” that is, people who choose “none” on religious preference surveys. They are the “Dones.” They are not unchurched but dechurched. As one participant put it, “I was churched right out of church.” Most of them retain their Christian faith. Indeed many left institutional churches because they found themselves unable to practice their faith effectively. Four central themes recur across the interviews (p. 28):

  1. They wanted community…and got judgment.
  2. They wanted to affect the life of the church…and got bureaucracy.
  3. They wanted conversation…and got doctrine.
  4. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world…and got moral prescription.

The authors explore these four themes in the four central chapters of the book. (1) The “Dones” longed for community, honesty, understanding, and intimacy with people of like faith. Instead, they found that no matter where they went the dominant ethos of institutional churches was judgment, that is, an anxious, unsympathetic, and impatient attitude toward the weaknesses of others. (2) They wanted to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, to try new things and serve in new ways. But their efforts were stymied by layers and layers of bureaucracy. In institutional churches there are many stakeholders and limited resources. Small changes in one area may affect the whole organization in unpredictable ways. The Dones finally concluded that no matter what its stated ideals the main purpose of bureaucratic churches ends up being self-preservation. (3) The Dones wanted their churches to be safe places to express opinions, questions and doubts and to explore their faith both intellectually and practically. But what they experienced were demands for doctrinal conformity. Questions and expressions of dissenting opinions were met with coolness and sometimes hostility. They were not expecting doctrinal anarchy; they understood the necessity of a church having a confessional identity. But they wanted church teachings to be presented with humility and openness to change. (4) Many of the Dones wanted the church to be engaged constructively in the social issues and needs of their communities, in alleviating poverty and homelessness, in addressing racism and other forms of injustice. But what they experienced was moral pronouncements from the leadership. In their experience, institutional churches were almost completely inwardly focused.

Sympathetic But Not Done

As regular readers of this blog know I have many concerns with traditional/institutional churches. (See my post of August 14, 2017, “Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?”) I am very supportive and empathetic with my dechurched friend, and I expected to resonate with the experience of the “Dones” and to be in agreement with the basic message of Church Refugees. So, I read it within a day of receiving it. But my overall feeling was disappointment. I agree with many (not all) of the Dones’ criticisms of institutional churches: they are too bureaucratic, too top-down, too inwardly focused, too judgmental, and too impersonal. But I was disappointed with what the Dones are putting in place of the institutional church. As a whole they are no longer participating in the communal life of the people of God. They don’t seem to understand what the church is. For sure, they have a nose for what it is not: it should not be the bureaucratic, inwardly-focused, clergy-dominated, self-perpetuating organization they left. But they don’t have a sound theological understanding of nature and mission of the Spirit-filled and Christ-shaped community that was created by the Resurrection of Jesus, the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit, and the apostolic mission. Nor seemingly do the authors; at least they don’t venture into those waters.

The last few chapters of Church Refugees offer recommendations on how institutional churches can keep people from becoming Dones or, less likely, reclaim some of those who already have. Most of these suggestions involve ameliorating some of the problems that provoked the exodus of the Dones. I don’t find these suggestions very convincing. The biggest problem I have with the authors’ proposals is that they are not radical enough, that is, they do not go to the root of the problem by rethinking the faulty, thoughtless theology of the church that lies behind the typical institutional church the Dones are leaving. I do not think churches should first ask themselves, “What can we change to keep people from leaving?” As far as I can tell from these interviews, the Dones’ theology of the church is just as superficial and defective as that of the churches they left; so, it cannot serve as a norm for reform. Indeed, it seems to me that many of the problems the Dones raise exist because the church has tried to serve too many constituencies and defined its mission too broadly. They won’t be solved by adding another group to please. I believe the first question we should address is, “How can we make sure that the institution we call “the church” really is the church as measured by the New Testament vision of its nature and mission?” What radical changes we would have to make if we took this vision seriously!

Looking forward

There is a church in my neighborhood that displays in view of a busy street a sign that says, “Saint Evagrius Lutheran Church [Not its real name]: Everyone is Welcome.” Every time I drive by this sign I groan. In my view, the idea that the church’s inmost life, its most intimate and solemn moments are matters open to the public at large arises from the superficial theology of the church that is shared by most institutional churches and the people who are leaving them. Radical problems need radical solutions.

To be continued.

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Press Release: New Book–New Approach to an Old Issue

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An Imprint of Sulis International
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
1 July 2017 | Los Angeles

Highfield Takes a Unique Perspective on Women in Leadership for Conservative Churches

Ron Highfield. Four Views on Women and Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders, and Bishops? Keledei Publishing, 2017. Pbk ISBN: 978-1-946849-08-3. eBook ISBN: 978-1-946849-09-0. 112pp.

Should conservative churches appoint women to the offices traditionally reserved for men? Many writers are calling for such changes; others oppose them. Are these proposals inspired by a deeper understanding of the gospel of Christ as their defenders claim? Or, are they inspired by contemporary secular philosophies as their opponents allege? Ron Highfield explores these and other questions in Four Views on Women and Church Leadership. In this book, Highfield stages a discussion in which three fictitious characters explain and defend their viewpoints and critique opposing views. The three views are Secular Feminism, Evangelical Egalitarianism, and New Complementarianism. In a fourth view, Highfield charges that the entire debate is based on a defective view of the church. He challenges the gratuitous assumptions that make the discussion necessary and meaningful: the church is a public institution, the ministry is a profession like other professions, and believers assemble to experience a performance. This book’s brevity, non-technical nature, and its questions for discussion at the end of each chapter make it ideal for private study, small group discussions, Sunday school classes, and undergraduate courses.

Endorsements for Four Views on Women and Church Leadership

”Ron Highfield has given a fair statement of different views, their strengths and weaknesses, on the important and controversial topic of female-male relations.  His work is a reminder that more is at stake than the correct interpretation and application of Biblical texts, as important as those are.  The theology of human nature has philosophical and practical implications for individual human life, the future of the human race, and human society at large.  Out of the countless books and articles on women in the church, this book for its sound common sense and Biblical and theological depth is a must read.”

—Everett Ferguson, Professor Emeritus, Abilene Christian University

”This book is an interesting treatment of the various viewpoints concerning women as leaders in the church.  It may surprise you and make you think differently about the issue.  It may also help you better define your own feelings about the issue.  I highly recommend it.”

—Jane Petty, Dickson, TN

”I learned from both Major League Baseball and Orthopaedic Surgery that the importance of following soundly established principles and best practices cannot be underestimated.  The contemporary church is embroiled in a battle with our dominant Western culture in no less significant ways than was the primitive and early church with its culture.  Professor Ron Highfield cleverly investigates the contemporary church-culture relationship by examining the current debate concerning the proper and acceptable role of women in the practice, preaching and leadership of today’s church. Ron uses an imaginary debate between three fictitious characters as a literary device to tease out the issues involved.  Each of these characters represents a different contemporary position and idea on the role of women in today’s church.  In the imaginary debate, he allows the reader to work through the issues and principles that are involved.   The perceptive reader will see that the issues are fundamentally very simple; yet, they are profoundly important for today’s church.  This very readable “little book” explores the nature of being human, the church and its authority.  It allows the reader to see that progressive culture is fundamentally attacking one of the bedrocks of the church—especially, the inspired and authoritative Scripture.  The role of women within the church is a symptom of the problem; it is not the problem or diagnosis.  This is an important treatise for the church to read and understand.”

—Gail E. Hopkins, MD, PhD

Availability of Four Views on Women and Church Leadership

Four Views on Women and Church Leadership is available now in paperback and eBook at retailers worldwide.

To order, and for more information, visit https://sulisinternational.com/product/four-views-highfield/.

To request review copies, visit https://sulisinternational.com/request-review-copy/

About the Author. Ron Highfield (PhD, Rice University) is Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California. He is the author of Great is the Lord: Theology for the Praise of God (Eerdmans, 2008), God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centured Culture (Intervarsity Press, 2013), The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety. (Intervarsity Press, 2015), and a contributor to Four Views on Divine Providence (Zondervan, 2011).

About Keledei Publications. An imprint of Sulis International, Keledei has been publishing non-fiction titles in spirituality, practical theology, Bible studies, ministry, and the Christian life. These works offer high-quality resources for individual Christians, the church, and those with interest in practical religion and faith. Keledei Publications also offers reprints of works in those areas, especially older titles that are not readily available in print or eBook form.
For information on submitting manuscripts, visit [https://sulisinternational.com/submit-a-manuscript/].

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The “Benedict Option” or Why the Church Must Not Serve “the Common Good”

 

“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

 “The Benedict Option”

In his recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel: New York, 2017), Rod Dreher draws a parallel between the cultural situation faced by Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy and our situation today in the western world. Benedict found his culture so morally corrupt and inhospitable to authentic Christian living that he withdrew from society and eventually founded the Benedictine order of monks. The social fabric of Benedict’s day was being ripped apart by barbarian tribes waging constant war to expand their domains. Our barbarians, says Dreher, don’t wear animal skins or overrun neighboring tribes. They wear designer suits and use smartphones, but they are just as dangerous to authentic Christian living as their sixth-century counterparts: “They are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human” (p. 17), and they call such work “progress.”

We live in an increasingly secular culture, and the minute we step outside the church door we are faced with enormous pressure to conform to the progressive vision of human life or at least to remain silent in our dissent. It is becoming ever more difficult for Christians to engage in professions such as public school teaching, the professorate or medicine. And ever-expanding antidiscrimination laws make engaging in businesses such as the florist trade, catering and photography risky for serious Christians. The culture war is over, declares Dreher; Christians lost, the barbarians won. The public square has officially become secular space, hostile territory.

In response to this new situation Dreher urges serious Christians to distance themselves from the dominant culture to form Christian countercultures. Leave public schools and form classical Christian schools or homeschools, don’t idolize university education, consider learning a trade, at whatever cost make your churches real communities that support authentic Christian faith and life, turn off the television, wean yourself away from social media, and “turn your home into a domestic monastery” (p. 124). It’s a radical vision, I know, and many will dismiss it as apocalyptic. However those who long for social space to live an authentic Christian life with their families and likeminded Christians may find in Dreher’s vision of the “Benedict option” inspiration to take action.

The Church as a Social Institution

In friendlier times the church was considered by the broader culture a social institution deserving recognition because of its invaluable contribution to the common good. Forming god-fearing, church-going, family-establishing citizens was considered a service to the nation. Traditional marriage, self-discipline and work were considered social goods. But we no longer live in friendly times, and the definition of “the common good” has changed dramatically. It now includes the ideologies of pluralism and multiculturalism, sexual license, expanded definitions of the family, gender fluidity and abortion. In certain influential sectors of culture the church is viewed as a powerful and stubborn preserve of superstition and reactionary morality. Through a combination of enticement, intimidation, and persuasion, mainstream culture attempts to move the church into conformity with its own moral standards and social goals. And its tactics are meeting with stunning success.

Especially after the American Civil War, many American denominations came to think of themselves as social institutions and touted their contributions to society. Some churches even made social utility their main if not sole reason to exist. Most churches relished and still relish such social privileges as tax exempt status and the right to own property. They value social approval and visibility. But the church’s unspoken agreement with society may turn out to have been a deal with the devil. For if a church presents itself to the public as a social institution valuable to society because of its contributions to the common good, can it complain when the public comes to expect it to behave like other social institutions?

But the most serious danger to the Christian identity of churches doesn’t come from outside the gates; homegrown “barbarians” are working from inside. Churches that sacrifice discipline and orthodoxy to pursue growth, popularity and social influence will find themselves mortgaged to the world. And mortgages eventually come due. Should we be surprised when church members and clergy who have marinated in progressive culture their whole lives press their churches to conform to that culture? Can the church retain its Christian identity while also clinging to its political privileges, social approval and community visibility? Pursuing something like “the Benedict option” may soon become the only way we can live an authentic Christian life in modern culture. Perhaps that time is already here.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage

Jesus Christ did not found the church to serve the society, and authentic Christianity cares little for secular definitions of the common good. It is not intrinsically wrong for the church to use what advantages a society may grant. But it should always keep clearly in mind that it does not need to own property, employ clergy and enjoy tax exempt status in order to exist in its fulness. It does not need political influence, social respectability or community visibility. It does not even need legal recognition. The church can get along quite well without these “privileges.” Indeed there may soon come a time when retaining its privileges at the cost of its Christian identity will become its greatest temptation. And it will fall unless it remembers that its one and only purpose is to serve its Lord whatever the cost.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Three Views on Women in Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders and Bishops?