This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about Church. What precipitated it have been comments like, “Well, your busy week is coming up.”, “Are you ready for Holy Week?” and other similar comments.
What struck me was the difference between my perception from the “inside” of the parish office preparation for Holy Week, and the outside.
Yes, Holy Week is busy, but it is much harder on the parish secretary and the parish custodian than the parish priest! I get everything ready, but Connie, our faithful secretary, and Fina, our faithful custodian have lots to do.
The busier times for me are times when the unexpected, a death, a serious pastoral situation, or other crisis interrupt in the middle of our normal preparations. That is when I have a busy week.
But in thinking about that I returned to something that I’ve been thinking about a great deal for the last ten years.
What does it mean to “be” the church in the 21st century? I’m not alone in thinking about this. For 1500 years, the Western world was defined by Christendom. To be European was to be Christian.
But for the last 200 years, that understanding has been undergoing a great change. The best articulation of some the issues surrounding how to be church continues to be Reinhold Neihbur’s “Christ and Culture.”
Neihbur observed that throughout history the church or at least parts of the Church tend to try different approaches to dealing with the society in which it finds itself.
There is the radical, Christ against Culture model, where the Church is seen as a haven of safety against the world.
Then the Christ of Culture model, where the Church engages in kingdom work and recognizes Jesus in the world.
There is the Christ above Culture model, where the Church sees that some of what is in the culture is God given and can be accepted as good, but where other things in the culture are fallen and must be transformed or rejected.
There is the Christ and Culture in Paradox model, where the Church recognizes that in a fallen world, we cannot hope to reconcile cultural demands and the radical ethical demands of the New Testament and so we live in faith and hope with our present imperfections.
Finally he postulated the Christ transforming Culture model, where the Church through conversion converts the members and institutions of society.
Why bother restating this?
Because we now live in a world of where the very thing we call culture is increasingly fragmented and constantly scrutinized and redefined, sometimes by members of a culture and sometimes from without. We live in a time where some sub-cultures are media driven or commerce driven.
We live in a time when there is competition between and suspicion of what some have called “Meta-narratives.” A simplified definition of a Meta-narrative is a worldview that explains nature, humanity, and culture in a relatively coherent whole.
But in a world where people see the differences and sometimes oversimplifications of the Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Communist, etc., etc. meta-narratives, some have become increasingly suspicious that there could be such a thing. (Of course skepticism in meta-narrative might be it's own meta-narrative!)
Now, I do believe in the broad Christian meta-narrative: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and final Consumation. I think that it makes the best sense out of the universe in which we find ourselves and I believe it is true.
But it still leaves the question. How do we "be" or "become" church in a world of increasing competition between and distrust of meta-narratives?
How does the church engage culture in a time where you have to ask “which culture” sometimes within the same neighborhood, or even within the same church?
And perhaps more importantly, why ask the question?
I believe that God is the author of the great meta-narrative. That each person, whether they lived a few hours, or more than 100 years, is part of that great opus. And I believe that each person is not just a passive participant. It is as though an artist painted a painting where the elements in the painting took on life and the painting changed on it’s own, or a film maker made a movie where the characters took on their own life apart from the film.
And so, it is important to ask, how can we participate in this great work of God, not passively, or antagonistically, but faithfully.
Peace and blessed holy week.