Adventures in Church Attendance: A Questionnaire on Ecclesiology

I’ve been sitting on a half-written (now 3/4-written) reflection piece about the recurring question (for me every Sunday that I walk into & out of church) of being earnest. Unfortunately, it’s still not quite ready to peddle off on the five of you who really dig these posts. In lieu of that, and perhaps even more revealing (of something more interesting than me, I hope), I thought I might post the answers I just now provided my church’s pastor (is it symptomatic of something deeper & more problematic that I still don’t refer to her as my pastor?) to a questionnaire on ecclesiology she sent this afternoon to me and the others on her DMin advisory team. (Please, reserve your ill judgment of the good reverend on her choice of said team. I suspect she  just wanted some cold, unemotional balance.)


Reflection Questions

In answering the questions below you can define “the church” as our local congregation.  However, you can also consider “the church” as the many churches that make up our denomination (the UCC) or mainline Protestantism in general.  Please answer these questions with the first thoughts that come to your mind.  There is no right or wrong answers.

(1) What is the church?  (Why does the church exist?)

The church is, at its best, which is admittedly not too often, the quintessential modern avant-garde community. At these times, momentary as they are, it is one of the final places that not only allows but (a) invites and (b) incites awkwardness [nod toward Kotsko here] & difference. The church, such as it is, is to be in tension with itself and with its world. Where it is has lost either tension, the church’s natural bend toward institutionalization bends even further toward its (inevitable?) stagnation. The church exists merely because (& only to the extent that) it does. It need not; and, indeed, it may not always. All this is a more or less worldly articulation of a theological packaging, in which the church is understood along the lines of “the hands and heart of God on earth,” whose tenuous, often quite problematic existence more than resembles but is in fact the manifestation of God’s activity on earth.

(2) What makes a church a church?  (What are the core things that, if lost, would cause a local church to cease being a church?)

The core of a local church is (a) intentionally meeting in a shared space in order that it might (b) enact & embody its core beliefs about itself, its world/community, and one another. This may occur (1) formally in the collective enactment of ritual/worship; it may (2) occur informally (or even by accident), where individuals create or discover a meeting space, as in an intimate conversation, that crosses beyond the mundane and speaks in some way—be it in an overt harmony, or a dissonance with an underlying harmony, or an improvisational free-for-all that has a confessional touchstone around which they agree—  to the things that matter most; or (3) it may be a mixture of both formality and informality, as in a shared participation in a cause or a movement or action. However it is manifested, the activity of the church is typically articulated through a shared grammar—namely, that of historical Christianity. The local church would very likely cease being the local church without some semblance of this shared grammar, but as with any grammar it is only useful to the extent that it is communicative of what the church is about (cf., question 1). The grammar is in service to the language, not the language to the grammar.

(3) Where is the church?

The church is anywhere it claims to be at any particular time. That is to say, it is not the building or location at which it meets, though the building and/or location can be symbolic of that meeting, and thus hold significant value. The church, rather, is the meeting or activity itself, the happening of the intentional meeting in a shared space in order that it might enact & embody its core beliefs about itself, its world/community, and one another. That this may occur formally, informally, and as a mixture of both signifies that the church’s location is fluid, but not necessarily everywhere. It could, in the absence of intention, etc., be nowhere. The church is not a natural (or supernatural) state that needs mere “participants.”

(4) Who is the church?

The church are those who meet intentionally in a shared space in order to embody & enact core beliefs . . . etc.

(5) What do you see as the greatest challenge or obstacle for the future of our local church?  For the UCC?  For Mainline Protestantism?

People feel increasingly stretched beyond their individual means—with their finances, time, relationships, etc. They’re over-extended in their myriad investments, most of which have no significant (if any positive) rate of return. They are discouraged and increasingly absent of hope. Church has typically been presented either as an ineffectual vehicle of wish-fulfillment or an obstacle (presented as a promise) to the present satisfaction of all wishes. Either way, for a good many church is the physical representation/reminder of, certainly for those without, their own discouragement and failures: “They do good work, the church, I’ll admit, but they’re fundamentally needy themselves, and I’m not needy,” says the man three times divorced with an alcohol dependence matched only by his penchant for randomly catching himself crying in the shower.

Or, alternatively, they’re completely sold on the core conservative religious belief of a personal salvation experienced immediately—now. Here, there need only be a one-time expression of neediness and an occasional nod afterward to this need. It is my belief, however, that the UCC / Mainline Protestantism as a whole cannot & should not remove itself from neediness, as its core belief is that which matters most in the world is that which is in the most need. Poverty, in all its various expressions—the present realities of physical want, mental burden, spiritual anguish, etc.—is both the UCC’s greatest obstacle and the challenge that (hopefully) invigorates it forward.

(6) What do you see as the greatest hope or possibility for the future of our local church?  For the UCC?  For Mainline Protestantism?

There is, I think, a general sense amongst people my age and younger, or at least those with whom I most identify [i.e., you lot], that we have been sold a false bill of goods about the world. The American Dream, in all its insipid non-American forms, too, as it were, is lost on us. We are apt to continue our flight from the reigning regimes of normalcy—for we in the commodified West this includes suburbia, 2.5-kids and lifelong spouse, green grass of home, a career, etc. It’s not that we’re against structures of power or authority, as some imagine, but rather the false promises that have tended to attend thereto. We’re not so much opposed to rituals as we are rigidity. The point is not some hell-bent anarchist do-as-you-please, fuck-fest in the fields of a free concert (though that is occasionally nice), but an improvisational experimentation that is not about patting itself on the back for being so free-thinking and cool, but one that is actually in the service of creating a moment (if nothing else), a glimpse, of something better, or, barring that, something that matters, or, as much as it it sounds like beatnik sentiment, something true. I returned to the church, the UCC in particular, because I think it has the potential (the will, now that’s a different issue) to enact (or, for some older congregations twenty years from closing up shop, let’s be realistic, be a patron to) the creation of these moments & glimpses.

We are on a political & ecological precipice point. On their current trajectory of both, I don’t see a bright future for either the UCC/Mainline Protestantism or the world in general. Nevertheless, interesting, profound, and maybe even revelatory things may still happen on the precipice. The language of the soul and soul-saving, the stuff of conservative religion and the seasoning of a good many other, is most helpful before & after the proverbial “shit hits the fan”—but while it is hitting . . . well, isn’t this the time of so-called progressive religion? If we are not yet in this time, we are surely on the verge—or, barring that, even, we must believe ourselves to be if we are to have any impact on the world.

This is, I realize, an incredibly bleak, almost certainly unpreachable way to express the hope of progressive Christianity, but I do in fact see it as such. As sad as it is, in this our modern world, attention to that which matters may occur only when the possibility of attention at all is threatened.

12 Responses to “Adventures in Church Attendance: A Questionnaire on Ecclesiology”

  1. millymollymandy71 Says:

    Wow, Brad! Jamie forwarded this to me and I love: “The church is, at its best, which is admittedly not too often, the quintessential modern avant-garde community. At these times, momentary as they are, it is one of the final places that not only allows but (a) invites and (b) incites awkwardness [nod toward Kotsko here] & difference. The church, such as it is, is to be in tension with itself and with its world. Where it is has lost either tension, the church’s natural bend toward institutionalization bends even further its (inevitable?) stagnation.”
    A very different spin on the usual “in the world but not of the world” thing. I think I like yours better!

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Thanks, Mandy. I probably undermined my cause a little with the weird “fuck-fest in the fields” line–I was a few doubles deep in my new bottle of bourbon at that point–but am inclined now to keep it in the post to ward off the overly pious. It pleases me that you found something of value in the post.

  3. Robert Minto Says:

    The language of the soul and soul-saving, the stuff of conservative religion and the seasoning of a good many other, is most helpful before & after the proverbial “shit hits the fan”—but while it is hitting . . . well, isn’t this the time of so-called progressive religion?

    This is good; this is interesting. I want to hear more about this. What do you mean?

  4. William Says:

    Ha. I’m no goody goody but I can’t really imagine ever using that line-“fuck-fest in the fields”-in a response to a pastor’s questionnaire. Granted, I don’t your pastor. Interesting thoughts though.

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    Robert, your quotation prompted me to make a small change to the text. Instead of “the stuff of conservative religion . . . many other,” I made it “the stuff of conservative Christianity . . . many others.” That change likely doesn’t address your question, but I wanted to point it out all the same.

    As I see it, the spirit discourse of conservative religion attempts to explain away suffering, to redeem it somehow with a long and/or deeper view of reality. It does this best before or after a crisis — before the diagnosis of cancer or collapse of civilization as we know it. In the midst of these crises, though, even where there is a spiritualizing concept in place, the redemptive spirit-discourse cannot countenance the actual physical effects, the various pains (or perhaps even pleasures). The actual experience of pain/pleasure, for the spirit-discourse to take effect, must somehow first be filtered out in order that its true meaning be rendered. A deeply materialistic progressive religion, I think, can more adequately (if not perfectly or even uniquely) focus on these actual experiences as they occur. This is because the progressive religion that I envision de-emphasizes spirituality & belief in order that it might pay attention to that which in existence informs/delimits our spiritual concepts. (As an example, Love as an abstract concept, that to which we aspire or look to achieve in our relationships, might be de-emphasized in order that a community might pay more immediate attention to who exactly is allowed and barred from human and non-human sociality. Who, in other words, is allowed the space to construct legitimate spiritualizing concepts? who is disallowed? what is / is there an adequate response? Something similar could be said, I think, of Justice.)

    As I wrote that long parenthetical I realized that what I was describing was patently a “privileged” (read:WHITE / European) progressive religion — i.e., one that has already enjoyed the fruits of a spirit language (that that has either by now soured or simply one so deeply held as to be held in a kind of abeyance). There are surely non-privileged progressive religious dispositions, though, that would not be so forthcoming in the kind of de-emphasis I’m advocating. (For good reason.) Right now, I don’t have an adequate response to this. Doing so, however, is the intention of the piece on earnestness to which I alluded in the post.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    William, I must confess: I edited that line out before sending it along, and re-inserted it for the sake of the post. Everything else, as far as I can recall, stayed the same.

  7. Robert Minto Says:

    Ah, that was a very helpful explanation.

    So in the case of cancer, for example, the conservative Christian’s “application” of religion would be to contextualize her pain as redemptive, or minimize it in light of the immortality of her soul, or even enjoy it as something shared with the hero-victim she worships – all of which require getting past the actual material experience of cancer itself. But the progressive Christian would de-emphasize these cancer-obscuring aspects of faith discourse in order to deal with the questions that the actual cancer, itself as itself, a material affliction, posed to the enactment of beliefs that were formerly quite naively asserted. In this sense, as you point out in the last paragraph of your comment, progressive Christianity of your variety requires a particular prior (and souring) conservative religiosity. Or at least that’s true insofar as progressive Christianity is a de-emphasizing or margin-examining process.

    Now I’m trying to work out the relationship between your generational situating of progressive Christianity —

    There is, I think, a general sense amongst people my age and younger, or at least those with whom I most identify [i.e., you lot], that we have been sold a false bill of goods about the world.

    — and your emphasis on the church as a sort of prepared space that nevertheless is (mostly) not yet doing what it could be doing —

    I returned to the church, the UCC in particular, because I think it has the potential (the will, now that’s a different issue) to enact (or, for some older congregations twenty years from closing up shop, let’s be realistic, be a patron to) the creation of these moments & glimpses.

    — because I struggle, personally, to find the site of conservative religiosity (which in my case is a very large part of the cause of my feeling that I’ve been “sold a false bill of goods about the world” – the neoliberal ideals and social practices buttressed by the spiritualizing approach to material life that you describe) at all promising as a venue for the “better”, what “matters”, what is “true.” How is a community, absent the will to these ideals, as you too observe, somehow potent to enact them?

    This is coming from someone, by the way, who has continued to go to church from childhood to the present out of a combination of force of habit and relational pressure. Perhaps the opportunities you see in church attendance require having stopped attending for a while. I, who have never stopped going to church, am surprised to find myself more pessimistic about the possibilities of the practice than you do… I find myself wondering if your kind of progressive Christianity, which is very attractive to me, is impossible to preach (as you say), because it is fundamentally at odds with the motives and occasions that inspire most church attenders to attend. But if a community does get itself up to the pursuit of progressive Christianity, it would have to have already abandoned the tradition it requires to de-emphasize and re-examine… Or so it seems to me anyway. Or is this a case of, “where else will we find a community for this if not the church?”

    Sorry for the lengthiness of my comment. Consider it a compliment to the affectiveness of your words.

  8. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    I am becoming more and more convinced that the so-called “progressive” church will, outside of urban centers, go mostly underground or only exist among academics in small numbers in the future. The ecclesiologies that seem to make sense in this, as you call it, “bleak” future will be neo-monastic or resemble secret societies. As it happens, it’s a return to the early church in some ways.

    One group I have been part of that has seen a spike in participation resembles this, which is a protestant “secular” or “third” order, which has a rule of life and service and there are varying degrees of commitments that the members make to the group. It exists in loose organization with a small central organization. It in some ways resembles some of the masonic organization going on today, with large events happening less often. I guess my thought is that the “bleakness” has more to do with institutional vitality rather than something quite different that is now occuring on the horizon.

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    Robert, I very much know what you mean. Recognize that the measured optimism exhibited in my questionnaire response is probably there even overstated a little. I’m increasingly of the mind that “the will” is largely an accidental discovery, and is far from being rooted in conscious activity is discovered when one is in the midst of realizing an unknown, unrecognized, or simply ignored potential. That is to say, the will may well “exist” outside the doing of a certain activity, but if it does it is mostly in the service of making us feel guilty or depressed that we’re not doing something with it. Which is to say, it’s largely useless. I can conceive of an organization or community slipping unknowingly into a productive activity, thus discovering the will. Now, what happens after this accident of the will? That is far harder for me to conceive. The church — and a good deal of religion in general — is quite conservative in its general constitution, and like any social movement things move in fits and jerks, and sometimes come to a grinding halt entirely. It could very well be that this kind of progressive religion only occurs momentarily, occasionally, etc. Better even that it occur only in hindsight — as something that occurred without us realizing — than merely as hypothetical, though.

    Chris, yeah . . . I can definitely see alternative institutions arising. Actually, I not only “can” see them doing so, but recognize their need to do so. The grammar of the historical church may in fact already be on par with that of Old English, and as such be appealing primarily to theological technicians and confessional retrogrades. I don’t know that a new grammar can be constructed from scratch. Such things are organic growths, it seems. But it certainly seems possible that such a growth has already occurred, and the institutions that delimit what the church is has or can be has failed to notice or actively repressed it.

  10. Robert Minto Says:

    I was thinking about it some more today, and was struck by the Nietzsche-like core of the progressive Christianity you seek: “one cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it” (from the Will to Power, I think). From that perspective, the necessity of the already-existing church makes theoretical sense. The “spirit discourse of conservative religion” is like the god we slaughtered a couple of centuries ago: its corpse is ancestral; conservative religiosity is the moribund expression of the same tradition that could include progressive Christianity, just as the values of Christianity led to their own devaluation by inaugurating a passion for truth.

    So I guess the way the above contributes to this conversation, is that I’m coming to take the opposite tack (from the perspective of the theory of “confessional retrogrades” — nice — that you lay out in your post) than Christopher. There does seem to be something suitable about progressive Christianity arising in the shell of conservative religiosity. A certain genealogical engine, as it were, would seem to be lacking in spontaneous and independent alternative institutions.

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    Nietzsche & The Will to Power, but also the end bit from Beckett’s The Unnameable. The whole “I can’t go on / I’ll go on,” etc.

    I’m not sure about the “certain genealogical engine” idea you bring forth. I see what you mean, but I do not want to sell short my ambivalence re: the notion even of “progressive Christianity.” A significant hurdle, I suppose, is that Christianity is a pretty decisively powerful institution, shell though it may be. It is very difficult both to fathom such an institution divesting itself of what has made it so powerful, or going so gently into that good night whereupon we might pick at the body for what we might need. Reminds me of Barthelme’s The Dead Father — where we’re dragging along the dead but nevertheless still deadly powerful institution (the Father, if you’ve not read this, is dead but not dead-dead, not finally and fully, and still very much a bore, impotent in the grand scale but not the local), w/ the notable difference being that it (the institution) may still yet outlive those who talk of its demise.

  12. Adventures in Church Attendance: Estrangement « An und für sich Says:

    […] communities are, I have reasoned, one of the last best possibilities for a modern avant-garde community whose aim moves beyond its […]


Comments are closed.