Friday, April 16, 2010

Parachurch Changes

Derived from a recent post.

Parachurch organizations have changed the church permanently. This has happened before, when religious orders created a separate hierarchy within the Medieval church, printed books created new networks beginning in 1500, and religious schools and foreign missions boards changed denominational structures in the 19th C. It is not merely that a younger generation tends to get much of its churchy interaction online – that is more a result than a cause. Much of what used to be supplied by the local church is now available elsewhere: preaching, teaching, worship music, study, evangelism opportunity. TV church, beginning about 40 years ago added prayer to that list. Believers could now write to an organization and get people in their prayer rooms to intercede for them. One could call and get some trusted stranger to pray with you over the phone. Community and social needs are met by outside organizations as well – superficially, if one is a only an attendee; more deeply if one is a staff member interacting with those other Christians more frequently.

That leaves Liturgy – still hard to do without physical presence; Sacrament, impossible to do without physical presence (but who knows?); and some aspects of community of greater importance than is realised. Parachurch concentrates people of like-mindedness. This is a path-of-least-resistance type of Christian community in which people of similar age, education, and style will be drawn to each other. Interestingly, this alternative method of segregation has already pretty much overridden ethnic barriers, and may yet be the most powerful force overriding racial barriers.

This last may be a net gain. Churches have always been groups of fairly similar people. A rural Romanian Orthodox Church was pretty much entirely made up of Romanian peasants. An urban Roman Catholic Church was nearly always highly ethnic, all congregants descended from immigrants who arrived here in a narrow band of decades, until very recently. This was more subtle, but equally present in the Protestant churches. I think it is a great loss to have the diversity of ages, wealth, origin, and opinion of the last two generations of churches fade away, as I think they are good for us. Yet there are other diversities with value as well. But community is of more value than diversity of any kind. I read with great distress about an Emerging Church of mostly younger people who identified the serious illness of a key member as having had a significant effect on growth of community in their church, was was meeting in nontraditional ways. People, that is called Real Life, and it is a typical week in even a small congregation like ours. I’m glad you found the use of that, but the fact that you considered it unusual illustrates how narrow your self-selection is. People get terribly ill; people die; people lose jobs; people have children that limit their mobility to do cool stuff like have church after lectures at art museums.

The churches without liturgy or sacrament will have the easiest time of developing new structures. Easier at first, I suspect. But the need for physical presence required for those acts of worship forces congregations to be together. I worry that there are deeper levels of community that will become rare. Breadth and distant interconnection of community may prove to be the enemy of depth. I hope not. I can certainly envision community that is actually closer because folks can keep in touch remotely, can share deeply in privacy, and can swarm to meet needs. Yet I worry that the opposite will happen invisibly. People will slip from the group unnoticed, as only the charming and articulate people can claim a place.

The old model has passed, though our current church-going retains much of the appearance of older days. Those appearances are half-deceiving. Though real, they mask the truth that church is already very different from fifty years ago because parachurch structures have created a new web of loyalties

1 comment:

james said...

Your second-to-last paragraph reflects what I fear in this: wide but attenuated and superficial communities. There is more to communication than words, more even than words and images. There's a world of difference between talking to my wife in person and talking over the phone. Same people, same words, but something's missing.

Words aren't enough. (Three of our children are Aspies, and so you can imagine that the world of non-verbal cues is one of lively interest to us.) But the online world is dominated by words and illusions, without a real presence.

I agree that the parachurch groups separate rather than unite. Within the group of friends things seem tight enough, but these comfortable place/echo chamber/ghettos don't meet much. This happens inside a church too. I grew up in Southern Baptist churches, where Sunday School groups were neatly segregated by age, so the young didn't benefit so much from the wisdom of the old. I've spent time since then in churches with extensive youth programs that insulate the youth from the rest of the church--with disastrous effects when the kids graduate.