by Pastor Doug Kings
In my sermon last Sunday, I shared a quote which is one of the most succinct descriptions I’ve found of the church’s dilemma and how it needs to change. It is by Jim Marion, who studied for the priesthood but became instead an attorney and ecumenical spiritual teacher. It’s from his book Putting on the Mind of Christ: The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality (2011).
In the late 1960s, the English‐American nondual mystic Alan Watts, who for a while was an Episcopal priest, wrote an essay entitled, “What Shall We Do with the Church?” In his usual brilliant but compassionately humorous way, Watts suggested that the future of the Church lay in getting away from moralizing, proselytizing, mythology, fundraising, and endless rational‐level chattering, and getting back to offering the one service it should have been offering but usually was not—genuine spiritual and mystical experience….
Watts was ahead of his time. His words were little heeded…. [But] the times are now catching up with Watts. What he called for may soon be what millions of churchgoers will be demanding; that the Church offer them something real: real spiritual healing, real spiritual power, real mystical experience, real contact with the Communion of Saints, and real practical and knowledgeable assistance in getting to inner God realization. Those churches that respond will survive….
Watts ends his essay by saying “Of course, there is a good argument for just letting obsolete institutions fall apart, since ‘no man putteth new wine into old wineskins’” (Matt. 9:17). That too may happen, and in today’s accelerating global change, it could happen faster than people think.
What has the church been about? For centuries, for most people, it has primarily been about two things: belonging and “going to church”, aka worship. The church emphasized the same things that any organization does: membership, attending activities, and financial support. In return, the church provided a significant component of people’s identity.
That culture is nearly gone. Once a staple of American society, the voluntary organization (church, PTA, lodge, veterans’ group, business association, etc.) now appeals to only a small segment of the population. Churches no longer function as ethnic communities. Nor are the services they provide seen as essential, even by those with religious inclinations: baptism and communion, confirmation, weddings, and funerals.
Churches’ remaining members, much reduced from fifty years ago, are primarily older people for whom these traditional aspects of church life are still valuable. They are befuddled by the change, and think that if they just improve what their church is doing it will appeal to more (younger) people. “We’ve relandscaped, painted the nursery, revamped our website, added a ‘contemporary’ service with drums and guitars, gone online, gotten a new young pastor, etc. etc. What more can we do?”
The analogy I have used is that of the (fictious) Acme Buggy Whip Company circa 1910. They’ve done everything they can think of to improve their buggy whips. They are the best around, yet their sales keep dropping. The problem is that Acme’s owners haven’t realized that a newfangled invention, the automobile, is rendering buggy whips obsolete. The company doesn’t need to improve its product. It needs to find a new one.
So, like Acme Buggy Whip, is the church an obsolete enterprise? As Watts and Marion suggest above, in its current form, yes. And this is nearly impossible for most remaining members, including clergy, to understand or accept. How can something that was so valuable for centuries be of little valuable to most people today? The simple answer is that the world has changed. It’s just that it’s taken about two hundred years for that fact to catch up with us.
Without going into a long history lesson, Christianity took a wrong turn very early on when, with the help of the Roman emperor, it put all its eggs into the basket of becoming THE CHURCH: an imperial institution of grand buildings, elaborate ritual, convoluted creeds and doctrines, and an elite domineering bedecked class of clergy and bishops. What any of this had to do with the carpenter from Nazareth was increasingly unclear, yet people came in their millions. Whenever political winds changed, the church adjusted to the new order and retained or even grew in its influence. That worked for over 1500 years–and then it didn’t.
Yet what Watts, Marion and, I believe, a growing number of others realize is that Christianity has always contained the seeds for its own renewal. Unsurprisingly, it starts with that mysterious man, Jesus of Nazareth. We will probably never fully understand what he was about. Too much time has passed, and our sources are too muddled for a clear picture.
But thanks to modern Bible scholarship, his basic message has become clear. And as I said in a recent sermon, it’s been staring us in the face all along. In the first chapter of Mark, the earliest gospel, Jesus summarizes his message saying, paraphrased, “Change what you’ve thought; God’s presence is here and now. Trust in this good news.” In John, the latest gospel, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” And this is not in some distant place at the end of history, but here and now.
This message and this experience are what Jesus tried to convey and, presumably, are what he wanted his followers to convey. He brought that life to hurting people and reassured them with the simple but enigmatic message, “Your faith has saved you.” Surprisingly, but perhaps not, his message was in harmony with that of other spiritual sages of the ancient world. Life, love, God—they are all found here and now, around and within us. But we must awaken from our sleep walking to find them, lose our “thin” life in order to find our full life.
This is what Watts and Marion mean above by “genuine spiritual and mystical experience…, the one service [the church] should have been offering but usually was not.” It is the answer to the Buddha’s first Noble Truth, that life is suffering. For the earliest followers of Jesus, he showed “the way” (their first description of themselves) from illusion to truth and life. Or as the man in this Sunday’s gospel says after encountering Jesus, “I was blind but now I see.” If it’s to survive, introducing people to that Jesus and that experience is what the church needs to be about.
Blessings in your life and ministry.