Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Portable Faith

I read the words “Portable Faith” intended as a disparagement recently. It was an emerging church commenter criticising seeker-friendly and megachurches. I imagine the point was to emphasize the importance of community, and to take a swipe at church-shoppers seeking entertainment.

But people move to other locations for good reason, and we might hope that Christians who do so have a portable faith. It seems rather a compliment than an insult. People who leave a fellowship for another city but “never quite get connected” to a church in their new home are a sadness for us.

And yes, emergents, such things are a testimony to the importance of community; we likely value our jobs too much and our fellowships too little in making a decision to move. Yet the reality – the decentralized, globally-connected reality, as you might note – is that people do move, and often. If we cannot give them a portable faith, then we have perhaps given them little. If our communities are to be the Body of Christ, they must rise above mere nostalgia for the stability of persons in an earlier era. I don’t say that any current Christian communities are a mere nostalgiac re-creation, but that such a danger will always be before us.

When we move our belongings, we throw some things away as inessential. Some things can be easily replaced at the new location, others we find are less important to us than previously once we come to the pinch of inconvenience of packing and transport. Some things will be unusable in the new locale, however much we might miss them.

We do the same with our cultures, and America is the largest repository of data of what people do with their culture when they leave one place to go to another. Whether people came friendless and alone or as part of an intact community transplanting to the New World, they left parts of their culture behind, but tried to cling to what was essential. What we have in America is stripped-down Italian culture, stripped-down eastern European Judaism, stripped-down Cambodian culture, stripped-down Catholicism. Most of our families then moved again, sometimes every generation or two. Now people move many times in a lifetime, preserving a little less of our previous culture, and mixing it with other transplants. We often preserved some oddities as essential,that the sending culture abandoned.

Perhaps this is why the Four Spiritual Laws/revivalist/sinners prayer theology took root here more than other places. It was certainly more common in the frontier cultures. When you can’t bring the community, or the building, the candlesticks, or the organ, or even that many books, you carry the concepts. After your people have moved on to another region six times, that gospel is pretty much a stripped-down version. That is both its strength and its weakness.

When you strip a language down to its bare minimum for communication, it starts acquiring complexities almost immediately. Pidgin-languages are not static, and develop rapidly into languages of full complexity on their own. English was a stripped-down Germanic language, losing a lot of its endings and conjugations as it moved to the British Isles and was learned as a second language by Celts and Scandinavians. But it developed its own subtleties immediately and was incomprehensible to Germanic tribes arriving two centuries later. When the Normans conquered England, more Germanic stuff got stripped off, while French and Latin stuff got added on at the same time. We still call English a Germanic language because its bare framework is German, even though far more of our words come from French and Latin.

The American churches show much the same thing. The Gospel was stripped down for portability, but everywhere it went it developed added complexities. Hundreds of small denominations and cults sprang up in America, and most were based off a stripped-down Protestantism: 1) Repent and know Jesus 2) Refer directly to Bible for all other questions. Each has its own idiosyncracies which rapidly come to seem essential to those within. We can rightly deplore the many splits and competitions in the Body of Christ, but there is a more benign explanation as well. Each of these splinters is a re-expression of the simplified gospel in a new community.

Even those groups with a strong denominational identity displayed this in less intense form. In the middle of the 20th Century there were a dozen variations of being Lutheran, a dozen types of Methodist, and a hundred types of Baptist. Even Catholicism looked different in Irish, Italian, Polish, French-Canadian, or Hispanic expressions, though there was more unity than among the Protestants. Each retained some distinctives of its parent group, yet acquired its own variations.

When communication went national and transportation made moving even easier, there was some tendency for the church to atomise further. But even stronger was the urge to regather, it seems, and what all these American Christians had in common was the stripped-down gospel. Welcome, non-denominational churches, which provide the church experience without requiring a lot of up-front doctrine. Welcome also parachurch ministries, each focussed not on doctrines but on actions: sending Bibles, improving marriages, feeding the hungry.

The similarity of these churches to each other provokes contempt in some, who liken them to chain restaurants or department stores. That analogy is going to be worth a whole post in itself.

In the meantime, consider the tension between churches like shops, which have distinctive identities and thus naturally appeal to some more than others, and churches like shopping malls, which appeal to as many as possible. Our instincts tell us we would much prefer the warmth and community atmosphere of shops; yet our collective behavior says otherwise.

1 comment:

Jerub-Baal said...

I don't understand why the idea of a 'portable faith' would be problematic for anyone who understands Christianity. After all, the early Christians were fairly peripatetic. The Jerusalem church was scattered after the martyrdom of Stephen. Paul, the apostles and many others (like Priscilla and Aquila) travelled to new cities to plant new churches. By no means did everyone move, but moving was not abnormal.

I would think that the issue is not so much if someone chooses to move and takes their faith with them, as whether we as believers take our whole faith seriously instead of picking and choosing what is most personally convienent to believe. And that last even the most sedentary person can be guilty of.