churchBean seems to fluctuate a lot in her writing. I find myself agreeing with many of her points but her approach to dealing with the issues she uncovers is the exact opposite of what I would do. She brings my attention to some real needs in the church and even says that she wouldn’t do away with the church but then she calls for not going to church anymore. So what is she really advocating? Does she want reform or does she want dismissal? As a church leader, I am finding areas where we need to place some attention, but if church is optional for Christians as Bean suggests, then what is church, really? Is it just a place where people who need it can go and those that have grown beyond it in some way can do without? This does not seem to describe the church founded after Jesus’ ascension.

Here is a revealing quote. “I wrote this book with a desire to see a world changed for the better as people practice ‘being Christian’ together in ways that birth faithful communities, spur generosity, encourage kindness, and inspire the hard work of reconciliation on the home front and in the world.” To this quote, I say Amen. That sounds to me to be a perfect mission statement for the church. Why can’t the church family, coming together weekly and in small groups, seek to accomplish this goal? Why does it have to take place outside of the local church gathering? This is the confusion that I keep sensing.

She continues with this statement, “We are not called to go to church, think the church belongs to the pastor, or serve a building. We are called to be the church.” Once again, I partly agree. But in agreeing, does that mean I forsake the church? Reactionary again.

Perhaps one of the most accusatory statements was this one. “When we start building houses we hope can contain God, we miss the point. That all ended when the temple was torn in two. God made it clear that God could be accessed by anyone-without a priest and without a special building.”

Yes, again. I agree with this wholeheartedly but do not see that applying this requires that I become a non-goer. I, and I am sure many others, do not believe God can be contained by any building. That is just an immature understanding of God and the church. If a pastor or church leader makes it  seem that he is the only source of truth pertaining to the things of God then that is an issue with that particular pastor and not with the church as a whole. Does this statement have something to say to the church, yes. We as the church gathered must always be aware of the awesomeness and transcendence of God. We approach Him in awe and with a mind that understands that no one fully comprehends the things of God. This helps us to remain humble as well. Our church leaders fulfill a role that has been held for centuries. They lead in worship and instruct in the Word just as the early church leaders did. If you attend a church where the pastor uses the pulpit and the role of leader in an unbiblical way, then seek reform or seek another church but don’t opt out.

There will always be the temptation to use the pulpit in the wrong way and that is where elders and other leaders of the church can provide a way of checks and balances. There were struggles in the early church and discipline was given in order to get the specific church back on track. This is why I see that a proactive approach will always be better than a reactive one.

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  1. Reading these posts, I have to wonder if Bean is focusing on something I studied recently as part of a sociology course: Sociologists have four main hierarchical levels into which they categorize religions, in ascending order of “mainstreaming” into society (i.e., decreasing antagonism from the dominant culture) and, generally, in size. The first level is the “cult,” which is forged in the fires of supreme hostility from the dominant culture. Cults are small and tightly knit, as well as very fervent in their beliefs, because those beliefs unite the members in solidarity and allow them to face their persecutors. As the cult grows and hostility from the dominant culture diminishes, it becomes a “sect,” characterized by a passionate desire to evangelize. As I was reading these echelons, the sect sounds closest to what the Church should be doing or exists as: emphasis on personal salvation, on spreading the Word, and on solidarity against a culture that, ultimately, is against us. The next level up is the “church” (in sociological jargon, taking on a new, third meaning from the two generally discussed in Christian circles), which is bureaucratized and no longer facing hostility from the dominant culture. It is accepted, and as the burdens the church bears according to its beliefs are alleviated, the church loses fervor and becomes more secularized, mollifying its foci on personal salvation and evangelism. Should the church become completely contiguous with the society as a whole, such that it is inseparable therefrom, it becomes an “ecclesia” — also known among sociologists as a state religion. At this level, the religion is essentially just a mundane element of the culture and lacks any real personality or evangelistic properties.

    As I was reading this, I could see patterns in the Church’s behavior institutionally, at least in America: We have become more secularized, watered down, and devitalized towards evangelism and active, personal salvation. We view fellowship and spirituality almost as things to check off on a checklist, rather than intimate and inseparable parts of our lives. Churches around the country, as institutions, are more concerned with harmonizing with mainstream culture, whether it conflicts with doctrine or not, just for the sake of “keeping the peace” — witness some churches’ acceptance of homosexuality or other flashpoint issues clearly against Christian doctrine. This is a key component of the sociological “church” echelon of religion.

    Perhaps what Bean is trying to advocate is a retrogression, a shift back towards the “sect” modus operandi, emphasizing personal salvation and evangelism, an active living out of our faith, as well as a recognition that our faith does and will conflict with dominant culture, and that this conflict is not something that we can just sweep away. Doctrine cannot be compromised for the sake of complaisance, and that is a property of the sect.

    At the same time, the total abandonment of the practice of getting together on a weekly basis in a regular location is indeed reactionary and doesn’t follow as a logically necessary outcome to the problems we face; moreover, sociologists do not claim that every religion follows these generalities to perfection. Institutional Islam is a good example, being an ecclesia in several countries but also having a strong spiritual factor and emphasizing proselytization, even to a militant degree. There is no reason why the institutional church cannot have the positive qualities of the sociological sect, and no reason why we should simply throw our hands in the air and walk away.

    I understand Bean’s longing for the intimacy, comfort, and altogether more spiritually conducive (at least from an introversive perspective such as my own) of small groups rather than the “rigmarole” of weekly church attendance, but there tradeoffs to be had there, such as in a loss of regularity, which, given our faulty human hearts, poses the serious threat of leading to negligence. But there is no reason why the two cannot be merged, with the large-scale institutional church providing teaching and corporate fellowship and discipline, while the small group supports with intimacy and warmth. I found that at the River, and it worked well. Why not expand this principle across the board?

    Sociologically, it is difficult: The four echelons of religious structure are generalities, to be sure, but they exist because they are the natural tendency of societies across time, and it has been demonstrated throughout history that when the Church — as a people — faces harsh persecution, we bond together and become stronger. Fire refines our faith just as it refines precious metal, and so whenever the heat lets up, such as in America, where we may represent a counterculture but are not actively oppressed, we run the risk of cooling off and losing our edge. Maintaining that balance is the key to our effectiveness overall in changing the world for God, yet Bean’s approach almost sounds like a suggestion that we should run and bury our heads in the sand.

    • Beautifully written response. I agree that combining what we are attempting at The River with the corporate worship and small group intimacy is conducive to a healthy church. I just feel that Bean is taking an approach that is not going to be fruitful and will lead to too much fragmentation. We must not forsake the church. Sounds like that sociology class is paying off. I do fear that the church is in some ways becoming too institutionalized and we have to be careful that it doesn’t become just another aspect of culture separated from its truth claims.

      • I agree: Over-institutionalization and spiritual enervation really are problems in the church, but abandoning it as a social institution really is not the answer. Where the church is broken, we need to fix it, not leave it to wither and die. The church as an institution has always been a unifying and energizing influence in society, as well as, obviously a beacon for the light of Christ. That was our Founders’ vision for our country in the first place.

        The sociology class really is paying off — it is so much more interesting than I thought it would be, and it offers a lot of tools for analyzing societal trends that I didn’t have before. I wish I could pursue it a little further, but I just don’t have the time.

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