Future of the church – May 1999

Question: Can a vital church in the future be continuous with the church of the past?

Publication Month: May 1999

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This is a tough question. My answer is “yes”, but the “no” answer must be taken very seriously at several levels.

At a very simple level, we know that the music of the past does not speak to many younger people today. Musical tastes have always changed over time, but the pace of change is now radically accelerated. A service of worship that is comfortable to older people is a downer for most of the young. Hence the churches that are appealing to the young are often new types of churches quite discontinuous from our oldline congregations.

The question is, no doubt, intended at a much deeper, more theological, level. The church has organized itself around a set of beliefs that are no longer convincing to many thoughtful people. Today its most visible forms are trying hard to retain values that no longer appeal to many of us, especially with respect to sexuality and abortion. Often the church feels like the dead hand of the past. A vital Christianity, then, must express itself in quite new forms.

The question, further, is whether even “a vital Christianity” is what is wanted. Do we not need, instead, a new spirituality that draws on many traditions and moves into uncharted waters? Is not the label “Christianity” an impediment to such a move, an effort to restrict its freedom to respond to the new situation, an insistence on parochialism in a globalizing context?

Those of us who believe that the Christian churches that now exist can have a promising future, that, indeed, they have a very important contribution to that future, do not find it easy to make our case in face of the evidence of what is actually happening. Nevertheless, we still try. I believe that process thought can help. 

Jay MacDaniel entitled a book, “With Roots and Wings”. Continuity with the past constitutes the roots. When these are strong and healthy they free us to try our wings. Even a new spirituality in fact has roots, but when these are not acknowledged and celebrated, or when they are extremely ecclectic, they may not make possible trying our wings. Sometimes, it remains so individualistic that the strength we all draw from community is not garnered. Sometimes, in order to maintain community without affirming a shared tradition, authoritarian methods are employed and a cult develops.  There are, in other words, disadvantages in starting afresh.

Of course, the danger of accenting continuity with tradition is also obvious. This can hold us bound to the past and put blinders on our eyes with respect to the present and future. We see many instances of this. 

But there are also many Christians who find their roots in the tradition liberating and empowering. There is much vitality in the church today among individuals and small groups who have found in the gospel a lever against oppression and exclusion and also against the dominant values of the consumer society. There is some response from other believers when these aspects of the tradition are brought to conscious attention. Whole communities within the church are shaped by this transforming vitality. In the midst of much decay and dreariness, there are seeds of new life.

Process theology can make a contribution to thinking of this development. In the process model, every momentary experience is both largely continuous with the past and also, in some measure, new and different. The newness comes partly from drawing on elements in its past that were not there before. It comes most fundamentally from God who enables us to weave these new elements together with the old through the realization of truly novel possibilities.

This microcosmic model speaks also to the macrocosmic Christian movement. When we trace its history, we see that it has always been in a process of change. When the change is healthy, the church is appropriating new wisdom from its environment, integrating it with its inherited understanding. Over centuries it incorporated much of the best of the Hellenistic world. It also has incorporated much of the best of the Enlightenment. 

There are always stresses and strains in this process. Not all its members accept change. Some identify rootage in the tradition with refusal to be open to the new. But history encourages us to think that when Christians trust God, individually and collectively, they open themselves to the living Spirit.

In the past fifty years the encounter with novel challenges has come at record speed. We have become aware of how deeply anti-Judaism has been integral to our positive faith in Christ. We have repented. We have become aware that our views of Indian and Chinese religions have radically failed to appreciate their positive achievements and potential contributions to all humanity. We have repented and sought dialogue rather than an imperialistic relation. We have come to see the evil in our negative attitudes toward sexuality and in our patriarchal patterns. Again we have repented. We have recognized that our historic anthropocentric teaching blinded us to the destruction of our natural environment. Here, too, we have repented.

These claims need clarification. The “we” certainly does not mean all Christians. Many still continue to be anti-Jewish, to promote imperialist relations to other religious communities, to regard sex as inherently dirty, to support the domination of  women by men, and to encourage the exploitation of other creatures. Nevertheless, on each point the change has been remarkable. Almost all Christian groups have changed on at least some of these points. Most of the oldline Protestant denominations have changed on all of them. They are now struggling to overcome their deep-seated prejudice against those whose sexual preference is for persons of their own gender.

The second qualification is more serious. Our collective repentance has gone only half way. Repentance includes regret and the effort to cease doing what we have been doing that is wrong. But it also means moving in a different direction. That requires widespread rethinking of the faith. 

Too often it appears, even to ourselves, that our repentance is a compromise of our tradition. That by repenting we become less Christian and more something else, secular, perhaps. We need instead to show how the deeper elements in our tradition enable us to criticize and reject the ones we now see as destructive. We need to show how we can learn from others not by abandoning our own roots, but precisely because of the nature of those roots. 

We have not done this well. We have left the impression that in changing, we are cutting off many of our roots rather than sending our roots deeper.  As a result, there seems to many to be less and less reason to think that Christianity has something of great importance to contribute.

Process theology can help. We can show that in the endless process of creative transformation that is called for we are in fact following Christ.  We can show that it is precisely our faith in God that leads us to draw on resources from outside our own tradition. We can show that faithfulness is expressed in risk-taking rather than in seeking security.

In those congregations that have faced all these challenges and moved forward, enthusiastically claiming their repentance as itself an expression of faith, we see a vitality that is our hope for the future. Whether that hope will be realized we cannot know. Perhaps in fact the church will fail to seize its opportunity, will stop repentance half-way, and continue in its present lukewarmness. Then we must expect that God will call into being new communities that are discontinuous with the past forms of the church. But we can hope that the church is instead passing through a new, and perhaps more difficult, reformation, and that there will be new life on the other side.