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LOEWEN: Whither the church?

Image Credit: Contributed/Jeffrey Loewen
August 27, 2014 - 7:38 AM

What was once a weekly source of spiritual succour and a place for meditative reflection has been hi-jacked and turned into a turd. The church of my childhood has disappeared and returned as a big box store.

Casting back the old eye-glass on the last half century, I understand the rot to have begun even before I hit puberty (and baptizable age, according to the custom of our Mennonite Brethren church denomination) in the early Seventies.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you a bit about the Mennonites.

Like our kissing-theological-cousins the Amish and the Hutterites, Mennonites can trace their roots back to radical offshoots of the Protestant Reformation. Unlike their Lutheran brethren, however, the Mennonites had a theology that distinguished itself with a radical critique of the World and the Powers that controlled it. They took dearly to heart the tough injunction from Jesus to “be in the World, but not of the World.”

In the Sixties and Seventies, this critical heritage would become a stumbling block for many increasingly assimilated Mennonites. In many congregations, the radical witness to peace began to get watered down, and with time, even the very name “Mennonite” began to disappear from the church’s lexicon in an effort to grow churches like other nominally evangelical churches. The feeling was that the distinctive and historical name “Mennonite” might dissuade non-Mennonites from joining the ranks.

Fast-forward to the present day and the Mennonites are virtually indistinguishable in theology and weekly practice from the majority of evangelical churches that crowd the highways and byways of our cities. And as we know, the evangelical churches are exploding with converts world-wide. But at what cost?

As I say, the church was a place for spiritual succour at one time. Amongst the Mennonites, a remarkable and complex musical tradition had evolved to the point where, any given Sunday, congregants would be awash in glorious four-part harmony, singing interesting and textually profound music based upon the Bible. Sermons delivered from the pulpit could be expected to be researched and wrestled with, and expounded with oratorical panache. If anyone out there ever heard a sermon delivered by the late Frank C. Peters (or my own dear father for that matter), they would nod in agreement here.

One glaring difference between then and now is that the church once exemplified a certain gravitas, a solemnity that has disappeared in the present as quickly as the wonderful old hymnals and the magic they contained have been replaced by overhead projectors casting contemporary babblings masquerading as songs of “worship” or “praise” and the vapid musical expressions of the new, corporate church’s “Worship Teams.”

Where once one would struggle with the mystery of difficult Biblical narratives illuminated through the erudite interpretive skills of a good pastoral expositor, these days it seems that evangelical churches have a shallower, more facile approach to the Text. A believer with a hunger for the greater significance of Bible stories will these days surely feel a little bloated after the service, but not nourished by the new church’s fast-food approach to its mission.

And perhaps the fast-food analogy is not too far off the mark here, gentle reader. It would seem that the evangelical church has experienced a conversion of sorts in recent decades, a “McDonaldization” if you will.

In an effort to appeal to everyone and anyone to fill the pews to capacity and, perhaps more importantly, contribute through “tithing” to the “greater good” of the church, the contemporary evangelical church seems to have become as homogenized and hegemonic as the fast food giant. And believe you me, brother and sister, some of these churches have their larders filled to over-flowing. As the always prescient Frank Zappa recognized as this phenomenon was unfolding decades ago:

He's got twenty million dollars
In his heavenly bank account...
All from those chumps who was
Born again
Oh yeah, oh yeah

So please don’t invite me to your church. There is no longer room for the black sheep, for the doubters, for the spiritual wrestlers, for the impediments to growth.

My dear parents are unhappy that their sons cannot attend the contemporary church; but they too grieve at the insubstantial offerings on display each Sunday. But to them, octogenarians happy to be blessed with Life and humbly accepting of their lot, the church has become a community of friends for whom they care deeply.

Just don’t get them started on how the sermon was, what the music was like, or the disgraceful fashion sense and comportment of the nominal church leaders. They will quietly smile and change the topic.

In the meantime the evangelical church will continue to grow; but it won’t be a very effective witness to counter the consumerist strip-mall mentality of our times.

Amen.

—  Having lost his 2,500 volume library in the Okanagan Mountain Park Fire, Jeffrey is beginning to fill the void by writing his own. Reach him at jeff.loewen(at)gmail.com

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