Friday, March 4, 2011

Reflection - The Church and the American Experience – by Askew and Spellman

This reading was quite eye opening. I have always had a good idea of the American connection to Christianity, but I was very surprised to find how deep that connection ran. The main revelation for me through this book was seeing the where the idea “America is a Christian Nation” came from. Some of the founders of this country may have been Christians but the church tradition they established was somewhat more organizational in purposes than religious. Ethnicity was almost as important as theology when it came to religious groups defining themselves from one another. In Europe the church was very institutionalized and so it would have been very normal for these people to adopt a similar structure in this new land. The beginning of the American church was basically a complex process of multiple transplant European cultures recreating and reestablishing their former context. The early church structure was for religious reasons as much as it was for community structure and survival. That structural desire combined with the pioneer spirit that kick-started the U.S., cause the church to evolve rapidly. While some religious communities did see much growth, in many cases, such as the settlements that started for economic purposes, it is amazing that the church continued on at all. While the purely communal nature of the early American church may be seen as a negative, these churches were rallying points for the communities of the new world – a place to gather and socialize. But is this Christianity? Maybe the early American church got it right on the community aspect of Christ's message but there is a sense that they were missing something.

Something the early American church struggled with would be the issue of attendance numbers and converts verses theological and traditional integrity. This was especially problematic in Puritan communities where new generations who were baptized as infants but did not profess the faith along with unconverted members were allowed to partake in the sacraments. The motivation for this was to draw in new converts and member in a time where people started to drift away from these religious communities. The Puritans were just trying to adjust to the cultural and contextual issues relative to the time. But does intention to grow numbers justify watering down the theology that has established the tradition in the first place? How often in our churches today do we sacrifice right practice and belief for the sake of accessibility? I do not believe that a government institutionalized religion is the way to go, people should be allowed to make their own choices on where and how they worship. I also understand the purpose and importance of evangelism but there has got to be a better way to draw people to the church without sacrificing integrity. Many of the early attempts to adjust ritual were meant to keep the younger generations around and this is an issue I see churches dealing with every day. We grow up watching our patients do church but then we also grow up seeing them live life and sometimes we harshly judge their inconsistencies. It is really the parents that give the younger generation a reason to participate in the church. There seemed to be inconstancy in that early church that caused the younger generation to steer away from an institution that they found to be insincere an inauthentic. To preach love and holiness only to experience pain, legalism, and strife – between other Christian communities no less - it should be of no surprise the religious ups and downs and the revivals and awakenings that America experienced. Maybe I am just reading my personal experience into the text, but it is an observation I have noticed time and again throughout history and especially throughout the church.

Another issue that I noticed in the American church is that it is almost fully built upon social action and reaction. Over and over again I have seen the swing from liberalism to conservatism, from social gospel to hard core evangelicalism, and there never seems to be a middle ground. Neither side is fully good or bad, right or wrong, there is definitely some fuzzy theology going on at times (and some groups are actually more wrong than others) but these groups just seem to be reacting to a void left by the current pattern of religious thought and action. I was shocked to read some of the quotes from the evangelists of the 19th century when talking about this issue. The issue was poverty and D.L. Moody was quoted as saying “It is a wonderful fact that men and women saved by the blood of Jesus rarely remain the subjects of charity, but rise at once to comfort and respectability.” Intentionally or not this is just another case of sacrificing the Good News of Christ for the sake of gaining conversion. It also clearly shows how the thread of White Privilege has been a significant ingredient in American Christianity.

What is the most amazing thing to me is that there is a contemporary American church at all. When I read books like this and I see all of the animosity and infighting I just know that God's Spirit is real and at work as the glue holding us all together. What man tears down over and over for selfish gain God makes new, rebuilds, strengthens and restores to do his work in the world. The church is the body of Christ – the agent of God's story. The body of Christ was sacrificed once already to reconcile the world to him, I don't think it needs to happen again. As sad as this book may be at times it is amazing to see how through history, the church, by the grace of God, continues on.