Transcript for September 27, 2009 by Fred Plumer
When I first graduated from college over forty years ago, I took a job with a well-known company (SCM Corp) selling high end office equipment. My job was to convince an office manager or a purchasing agent that their company should use one of our products as opposed to similar types of equipment sold by other companies. So we were trained to walk into offices carrying these forty pound pieces of equipment, give entertaining and educational demonstrations, and try and get the potential customer to let us leave these expensive machines for trial so they would get used to them, want them, and we could then close a sale.
And what were these forty pound things we carried around? Something called “calculators.” They cost anywhere from $2000 to $10,000 in today’s dollars and if you sold enough of them you could make a pretty good living.
Now here is the surprise, I suspect, for most of you. Do you know what these heavy, expensive pieces of equipment did? They added, subtracted, multiplied and, if you had a master’s degree in “calculator skills,” you could divide with them.
Within ten years after I took that job, which lasted less than a year, there were calculators available for under $50, the size of a small book, that did all of those same things plus a lot of other things. Today they give calculators away, at store openings, that fit into the palm of your hand. And guess what? They still add, subtract, multiply, divide and things I don’t understand.
So what is the point of this little trip down memory lane? I am sorry to report to you that all indications are that church, as we know it, is in the same place calculators were 45 years ago. They have become heavy, expensive, complicated and slow to change. And I am very sorry about that.
Part of the problem is that religions in general have not changed with the times. They are tied to written scriptures rather than oral traditions that naturally adjust to the times. The institutional church has codified myth, allegory and metaphor and turned it into history. The result is that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is no longer relevant.
Don Cupitt, a professor of Philosophy of Religion and the former Dean of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, has written several books about the need to rethink and reform our idea of religion. Eight years ago in his excellent book, Emptiness and Brightness, Cupitt wrote: “No major religious tradition is still in its prime and still creative. There may be a few scraps of good stuff here and there in the great religions, but for the most part their institutions, their ways of thinking, their vocabulary, and so on, are out of date and just plain wrong.”
But, I believe these things have led to a more serious problem. You see, most of the people who are part of mainline churches across the country today really don’t know why they go to church. They cannot articulate what the primary purpose of the church really is . . . its reason for being.
So that begs the question: “Why are we here anyway?”
Well I am in complete agreement with Peter Drucker, an extraordinary consultant to business people for decades. Over twenty years ago Drucker started using some of his management skills to help churches and non-profits as well as businesses.
In an interview for Leadership magazine, before his death a few years ago, Drucker was asked what he thought the main difference between corporations and churches was. He responded: “The business of a church is to change people; the business of a corporation is to satisfy them.”
I am afraid the vast majority of people in church leadership today spend far too much of their time trying to satisfy people rather than providing them an opportunity and encouragement to change or to be transformed. I am afraid that too many of our churches have become the centers for clinging and holding on, instead teachers of letting go. They have forgotten that their purpose was about changing lives, not about maintaining traditions. In short, they have lost touch with the core purpose of the Christian path. And if an organization does not know what its product is, how does one explain its reason for being to others?
Kirk Hadaway wrote a book a few years ago that I believe has not received enough attention from the larger church. It’s titled, Behold I Do New Thing. In that book he writes: “. . . the purpose of the church is to transform people – to bring down their self-constructed walls, dissolve their delusions, and help them see God.”
We are not talking here about manipulating someone’s mind, or creating dogmatic robots, or fostering religious zealots. I am simply describing here what Anthony De Mello refers to as helping people “wake up.” I am talking about helping them become aware. I am talking here about teaching and modeling the Dharma of Jesus, the “teacher of the way.” I am talking here about helping people find the “eyes to see,” and the “ears to hear.” Yes, I am talking about creating dynamic churches that help people experience the Realm of God or what Jesus may have called the Kingdom of God or Sacred Unity.
According to the Gospels, Jesus said heaven is here. It is now. It is in us and around us. It is even in those nasty little mustard weeds that still drive farmers crazy. Somewhere along the way the institutional church turned that mystical Realm into something that is available only after we die; assuming, of course, we have the right belief. The result was that we quit teaching ways to find it, ways to experience it, and thus loosing ways to be changed by it.
The result of all of this is that we have institutional churches with dead theologies, impotent Christologies and churches across the country that are dying or are on life support.
At the same time this is going on, there is plenty of evidence that there is a growing hunger for spiritual practices and mystical experience. Books like Tolle’s, A New Earth, are best sellers. Thousands of people every month are attending spiritual workshops across the country, trying to satisfy a thirst, while our sanctuaries sit empty waiting for redemption.
That is one of the reasons that the Emerging Church movement is garnering so much attention. Several months ago I attended a fascinating conference in Northern California that was focused on this movement. It is pretty hard to pin down a description of an emerging church but frankly, they do not want to be defined. I think it is safe to say that the common focus is more on the teachings than it is on the creeds. It is more about behavior than it is on beliefs. It is more about experience than it is about dogma.
I want to assure you that these emerging young Christians have attracted a lot of interest on the part of social scientists and denominational leaders. They are growing vital, exciting churches without preaching fear and eternal damnation. They are teaching the Jesus story without focusing on atonement and salvation. They are focusing on grace rather than sin. And they spend lot of time in worship and small groups talking about ways to practice the path of love and compassion in their own lives.
Geraldo Marti, Professor of Religion at Davidson College, has been studying this new movement for over five years now and has written a couple of books about it.
Professor Marti wondered what these somewhat disparate growing churches have in common. There were several reasons, but the most important one was that these young church leaders passionately believe that they are in partnership with God or the Divine Spirit. And they believe that anyone who wants to participate in the life of that congregation is in partnership with God – not to build buildings or the congregation or even save lives – but to change lives. The one thing these churches seem to have in common is their clarity about the purpose of their churches. Christianity for them is about personal growth, change and transformation.
Now I may not have been comfortable with some of the theological things that Marti wrote or said, but I was in 100 percent agreement with him about why these churches were thriving. The people in those churches knew exactly why they were there and they felt excited and passionate about it. And they love to talk about it.
As I look out at the church landscape these days I can only wonder. It seems so ironic that the same people who are trying so hard to hold on to something that is no longer working, trying desperately to keep things the way “they have always been,” are representing a man who was a radical change agent in his own time. Not only was he advocating changes in his own religion, the entire Jesus message, the foundation of Christianity, has always been about change:
Repentance is about change;
Forgiveness is about change;
Conversion is about change;
Transformation is about change;
Love is about change;
Resurrection is about change;
Taking on the mind of Christ is about change.
Hope is about change.
In fact the whole primordial mythic Christian epic is about life and death and rebirth. It is about learning to die every day and being reborn . . . again and again, as we grow spiritually.
Professor Marti states that “if you do not like change you should not be a Christian.”
The tragedy in all of this is that we have the incredible teachings; the revelations that can lead one to this spiritual, this transforming, Realm if we actually practice them. But sadly, it seems that this is one of the best kept secrets in the universe. We have confused the transforming, “eternal water” with the vessel that was supposed to carry it. We spend most of our time redesigning the cup and ignore the “living water” in it.
We have the path that can “wake up” those who want to change, for those who want to find peace, happiness and joy . . . if only we would acknowledge it and trust it. We have a clear purpose for the church; if only we would learn to model it and teach it. We have tools to help people change; if only we would believe it.
So you see, the world waits for people who are willing to walk, to teach and share that path. They yearn to experience God’s Realm, Eternal Life, Sacred Unity or whatever they may choose to call it. They yearn to have an experience of that absolute interconnectedness of all life. However, it is not easy to wake up when you have been sleeping heavily. It is not easy to come into the bright light when your eyes have been closed for a long time. So we need teachers; we need models; we need support and accountability – all the things that a sacred transformative community can provide. We need teachers who believe in the transforming ways of Jesus and other great spiritual teachers if we are going to make a difference in people’s lives, and make a difference in the world.
I am glad the people at C3 are boldly trying to do just that.
You have the core teachings. You have the path. They will open up windows and doorways; they are all about developing an awareness of whom and what we are. They can wake us up; they can help us hear and see new things. These teachings, when understood and lived, can make a profound change in our understanding and experience of life here and now. They can lead to an experience of the Realm of God or Sacred Unity – an experience of peace, wholeness, happiness and complete joy.
Then I pray that you will continue to find creative ways to teach it, to preach it and to live it. Help the church out of the box that it seems to find itself trapped in today. Continue to be bold, creative and courageous.
We need you.