Monday, January 04, 2010

Ministry Among the Cultured Despisers

The Philadelphia Inquirer had a front page article about the challenges facing Orthodox Churches in the neighborhood of Northern Liberties. It's the classic story of changing communities. The congregations no longer reflect the culture surrounding them, and the numbers are dwindling.

Typically, I’ve heard this story about churches born in white blue-collar communities that are now in the midst of poverty and ethnic diversity. The prescription always is to change. The congregation needs to reach out to the new population with culturally attuned music, programs to alleviate poverty, and more hospitality. Some churches are successful in the change. Others are not able to make the transition.

What intrigues me about the challenges facing these Orthodox Churches is that the culture has changed from an immigrant ethnic population to an affluent educated white population. Northern Liberties has become a trendy, avant-garde community. Clearly the Orthodox Church will not be making sweeping accommodations in their liturgy to the new culture, but a larger question remains: How does the church do ministry among the Bohemian Bourgeois?
I found the comments of the community’s residents concerning their attitudes toward religion most interesting.
“It's not that I don't have a spiritual dimension in my life…organized religion isn't doing it for me."

"Not that I don't believe in God…[but ] church is kind of out of fashion in its structure. People in our generation tend to make our own paths rather than follow someone else's."

"It just manifests itself in different ways than attending church…I try to be a good person. I try to treat others as I'd like to be treated."

Clearly the author picked the quotes, but each person seems a bit defensive. There is an acknowledgement that the spiritual life has value, but there is resistance to structure and commitment.

I know that my observations are worth very little, but I have learned a few things about this population.
  • Do not compete directly with the culture. You will lose. We can’t do music, theater, and the like better than New York or Hollywood. We shouldn’t try. We should do what we do to the best of our ability with integrity and faithfulness. There lies the difference.
  • Syncretism is not the answer. Interestingly, the culture encourages a cafeteria-style religion, but it also appreciates authenticity. A muddled intellectual and theological mush isn’t very authentic. The curious who come will be syncretistic. That’s just the reality, but the church shouldn’t be.
  • The church should be hospitable. That being said, the church must be willing to engage respectfully with all viewpoints. We should acknowledge the good wherever we see it, and we should be open to be corrected.
  • The church needs to become apologists. We aren’t talking about making apologies for past sins (although repentance should be always the church’s agenda). Too often, apologetics has been reduced simply to logical arguments. “If A=B, the Jesus is Lord. Quad Erat Demonstrandum.” We need to explain why we do what do with reason, but also with poetry and emotion.
  • The church needs to focus on building community. Our society is incredibly lonely. When we build our own identity and life is individually tailored to our choices, we stand alone. People are longing for community, and the church should reach out in fellowship and love. We need to build relationships with each other.
  • The church needs to focus on good works. Worship still remains the heart of who we are, but living the faith by actively doing good works is essential. Selfless love is an important entry point into the life of faith, and churches need to develop a sacramental understanding of service. Service points to God.
  • Finally, I am more convinced today than ever that the church should talk about the stewardship of the environment. This is not a capitulation to the culture. “Being green” has become the lifestyle of many. If the church chooses to ignore that, we are not loving those ever increasing number of “tree huggers.” The church has the biblical and theological resources to talk about the environment. Let’s use them.

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