Sunday, August 13, 2017

Seminary CM9: My American Church Context

This is the ninth post on the Contexts of Ministry in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series,The Pastor as Leader.
1. There were a number of creative features to the initial design of the Cultural Contexts of Ministry class when Wesley Seminary was founded at Indiana Wesleyan University. One of them was to cover American history in the contexts of ministry course. In the design of the curriculum, Norm Wilson was concerned that the Global Christian History course not assume a North American focus, as if white American Christianity was the culmination or center point of Christianity.

Out of this discussion came the idea of covering American Church History in the Cultural Contexts of Ministry class. American church history would then be seen, as it should be, as one of the contexts of American ministers in the US, but not necessarily that of ministers in other parts of the world. The idea was that, when the curriculum left North America, this component would switch out the American piece for the local and regional church history of the cohort elsewhere.

So it is not a little unusual to cover American church history in a cultural contexts class. Another unique feature, the brain child of Keith Drury, was to cover this context in reverse and selectively, depending on who was in the class. So each student in the class would start with whatever church they were currently a part of and work backward. The end result was often a board that looked like an upside down tree, with each student starting as a branch at the bottom and working back up to the trunk of earlier Catholicism.

2. So for me, The Wesleyan Church came from the merger of two smaller denominations, The Pilgrim Holiness Church and (1922) the Wesleyan Methodist Church (1843). The PHC often looks back to an event in 1895 and my grandparents' branch went back to 1882, but it was largely a collection of little groups in the Midwest that came out of revivals in the late 1880s/early 1900s. These individuals were Methodists, Quakers, and so forth. The Wesleyan Methodist Church was started by a group of abolitionists who were unhappy with the way the Methodist Episcopal Church was not taking a stand against slavery.

So my parent denominations roughly come out of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1784 by John Wesley after the American Revolutionary War. Because of the separation between the Church of England and America, it seemed necessary to ordain ministers who were part of his Methodist movement, which grew out of the Anglican Church or the Church of England.

At this point, the church ancestry leaves the US and goes back to England. The Anglican Church came out of Roman Catholicism in 1534 during the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church came out of the split between East and West in 1054. Before that you had common Catholic Christianity.

Part of the goal of this exercise was to help students see where they came from theologically. A non-denominational church might say, "We just follow the Bible," but of course they're wrong. All it takes is a few questions to figure out where your ideas and traditions really came from. You may be a mixture of traditions, but unless you grew up reading the Bible in a bomb shelter, there is little doubt but that much of what you think the Bible says is teaching you heard from someone else in a particular Christian tradition.

3. So most American Christians will have a strong Baptistic element to their sense of the Bible. The Baptist tradition has had the strongest influence on American Christianity of any tradition. The Baptistic influence 1) clearly emphasizes believer's baptism by immersion, soon after "conversion," 2) tends to be local church centric rather than a larger hierarchical structure, 3) tends toward the fundamentalist side, reacting against the forces of modernism and thus with a tinge of anti-intellectualism and anti-education/anti-science, 4) has a strong sense of eternal security and the inevitability of sin.

These forces are strong on a wide-variety of denominations, including my own, which supposedly comes out of the Methodist tradition. Your typical independent or non-denominational church is probably Baptistic in orientation. Although no doubt claiming to get its beliefs from the Bible alone, these American churches will strangely look a lot like the previous paragraph. Perhaps only 25.3% of Americans (in 2007) are officially Baptist, but the influence on evangelicalism (25.4% in 2014) is much more pervasive.

In the South they say there are no Lutherans, Methodists, or Presbyterians. There are only Lutheran Baptists, Methodist Baptists, and Presbyterian Baptists.

Often coupled with Baptistic elements is the Pentecostal tradition (8.9% in 2007). So you take a Baptist church and add an openness to speaking in tongues, and you have an Assemblies of God church. These groups are often put into the category of evangelicalism, which is a largely white American tradition (black churches usually do not self-identify as evangelicals, 6.5% in 2014).

Evangelicalism, following the myth of simply being Bible-believing, is often typified as being 1) Scripture-centered, 2) conversion-centered, 3) cross-centered, and 4) socially active. [1] But what this really means is 1) tending toward the fundamentalist in reaction to forces that emerged in the late 1800s/early 1900s, 2) in the train of the revivals in England and the US in the 1700s, 3) strongly influenced by John Calvin, and 4) willing to fight against modernism.

In other words, what we believe as Christians is usually connected to the Bible but extremely filtered through the history of our American context. A lack of awareness of these forces is a fundamental blindspot of the American church. It is also why there are over 30,000 American denominations. Most of them are convinced they are just reading the Bible and doing what it says... and that so many other groups are wrong.

4. So if you wanted to start a denomination, what are the ingredients? What are my choices from which to choose?

a. Church Structure: First, only a Protestant would want to start a new denomination. We protesters originated in the late Middle Ages over abuses in the Roman Catholic Church. Most of the early split-offs (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist) retained some of the episcopal structure of the RCC. So this is one of your choices. Do I want a more episcopal structure with bishops and a hierarchy (doubtful, if you're starting a new denomination)? Or do I want to go Baptistic (more likely, especially if I live in a democratic society) and let the local congregation pick their pastor? Well, at least after my prophetic rule is over.

Think you're getting back to the Bible by doing away with hierarchy? Maybe you're part of the house church movement. Nah, you're just riding the waves of American culture without knowing it. In America, I get to decide stuff, and we're currently in a "state's rights" phase of our country's history, an example of Baptistic influence affecting our politics. "Push the rule down locally."

b. Fundamentalist or ?: If you are trying to start a new denomination, there's a good chance you have been influenced by the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900s. This means you are very sensitive to scholarship on the Bible, on modern science, and probably have your reservations about education in general. These things were not always the case.

In the early 1800s, American Christians would not have seen a conflict between science and religion. And it was Christianity more than anything else that was behind the rise of American colleges and universities. The turning point was with the rise of German biblical scholarship in the late 1800s and the rise of evolution in science in the late 1800s/early 1900s. That is, the rise of modernism.

American Christianity has never quite been able to recover. Instead, a certain understanding of the Bible became a matter of war. No discussion is allowed on these matters. Rather they must simply be believed and all reason marshaled to support the "right" position only. The rise of the nones may in part be the result. Certainly a lot of people have lost their faith in the meantime, being told that it was either the fundamentalist dogma or leave. The strong support of Trump by evangelicals is a manifestation of this American dynamic.

I wonder if there will be an unexpected revival among the nones in the decade to come, with an unexpected new wave. If so, much of the American church would consider it perverse because it would not conform to fundamentalist expectations (cf. the emergent church). Perhaps not. Right now there is a re-surge of fundamentalism. But I wonder.

c. Conversion vs Sacrament: The revivals of Wesley's England and then across America were a natural result of the rise of individualism and democracy. In a world where the individual decides and votes, it becomes essential for the individual to choose Christ. It is no longer a decision that was decided for you by your group. You must make it your own. "God has no grandchildren, only children."

Thus we see a shift from infant baptism to believer's baptism, one of the choices you will want to make a decision on as your start your new church. But if you are starting a new church, I feel quite convinced you will go with believer's baptism.

Others seem enamored right now with sacraments. But they tend to move in the Episcopal direction, with some then making the jump to Catholicism or the Orthodox tradition. They rarely start churches. :-)

d. Experiential Orientation: So how are you going to treat spiritual gifts, especially tongues? Are you going to allow emotional expression in worship? How demonstrative will your services be? What will the worship style be? Hymns? A worship band? No instruments? Does the Spirit still give people spiritual gifts? What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit?

e. Theological Gap-Filler: So what are the main options with regard to theological ideas? Again, I'm assuming you're Protestant in some flavor if you are starting your own denomination.

Here are some options:
  • God: Are you going to focus more on God's nature as love or as just? Are you going to see him determining everything or giving extensive freedom to his creation? Does he know everything or does his knowledge unfold with our choices?
  • Christ and salvation: In what way does Jesus reconcile us to God (assuming you believe he did)? How does the cross and atonement work? How is someone saved (assuming we need to be saved in some way)? Or is Christ more a model to follow? Do you have to know him in your head to be saved or is it about knowing him in your heart? Once you are "saved" are you always saved or can you lose this state? 
  • Spirit and the Church: See some of the options above.
  • Eschatology: Can things get better? Can the church have an impact on the world? Or are things inevitably going to decline until Christ returns? Is Christ returning? Do we die and go directly to heaven/hell or is there going to be a resurrection to a new earth? Is there going to be a Tribulation with an Antichrist? Is everyone going to be saved? Are most going to hell? Or does God just annihilate those who aren't "saved"? 
  • Ethics: How does God expect us to live in this world? Can we defeat temptation and sin? How free are we? Is the Christian life primarily about following rules or is it more about being in relationship with God? Is your emphasis more law-focused or grace-focused? Should we force the society we are in to have our Christian ethic? Or are we in exile in a world without God?
  • Creation: In our times Christians often take a position on the creation. Is it something we need to steward and protect as God's representatives on earth or is it largely something we need not worry about?
5. The main take-away is that no one reading this post is a Christian in a vacuum. Your Christian identity has inevitably been shaped by your historical and theological context. In other words, it has been shaped by culture every bit as much as by ideas. If we do not know these influences on us, we do not know ourselves and we are slaves to the whims of history.

Next Sunday: Culture 10: The Growth of the Nones

[1] David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry

1 comment:

John Mark said...

As you have pointed out, many of the answers to your questions are assumed, unthinkingly so. When I think back on my childhood, we seldom addressed any of this stuff; even why we weren’t Baptists (even when the book Why I am a Nazarene came out I don’t recall much local discussion on it). Evangelists would say, as I recall, “Nazarenes believe in backsliding and practice it all the time.” But I was woefully ignorant of church history, and what little I know now has come from Justo Gonzalez, David Bentley Hart, and bloggers such as yourself. I think we are all poorer for not knowing more history. Why do we have creeds? Why is the Chalcedonian Creed important? To recite creeds when I was growing up was unheard of and probably would have been looked on with some suspicion. I may be overstating the case, though.
I am a Nazarene partly by choice and partly because I have no choice. If I were to be something else, I think I would be a ‘charismatic’ Anglican. I might struggle because of the seeming lack of emphasis on being born again—that is my understanding, at any rate, of churches where the theology is mostly Eucharistic. Of course, on one hand I think that Nazarene churches are full of people who are merely enculturated, and on the other hand, Roger Olson believes that every true Christian has been ‘converted’ whether they know it or not. I have been told that Wesley preached for conversion a lot, which was one of the things that got him into trouble.
I do tend to ramble on……
Anyway, thanks for this post.