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So Why Are We Here Again?

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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 […]

Transcript for September 27, 2009 by Fred Plumer

calcWhen 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.

towerIn 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.

youngNow 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.

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3 Responses to “So Why Are We Here Again?”

  1. Phillip Smith
    October 1, 2009 at 4:44 am #

    Brilliant article, and am sad to say, it’s the case in a lot of churches here in Australia(thankfully no longer mine!!). To paraphrase “Living the Questions 2” notes for session 7 “OUT INTO THE WORLD-CHALLENGES FACING PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANS” “Many Christians today hold it as a litmus test of their faith, that they embrace thousand year held ideas, and are proud of it!!”. It’s sad that discoveries in almost every other area of society are lauded, but, sadly, religion, particularly Christianity, as much as I’m a passionate progressive Christian, myself, is it’s own worst enemy, and simply refuses to change with the times. To be fair, though, my church has now become at least forward thinking and the sermons now, are brilliant!! We’re currently now in my church, having a sermon series on the Nicene Creed, which is really great. Also, my parents and I have been psssionately involved with “Living the Questions 2”, which has been awesome,and one of the Uniting Churches in the Perth suburb of Wembley Downs is really open and progressive. Thanks so much for a very uplifting website.

  2. 'annie'
    October 1, 2009 at 2:14 pm #

    Excellent. Well said. Very true.

  3. Edward R. Dick
    October 6, 2009 at 11:19 am #

    Fred, when I first read your post dated 9/29/09 entitled: “So Why Are We Here Again?”
    I was in complete agreement with what you wrote in this post. On reflection, I am having
    a problem about what you list as the purpose of the church. When I look a the history
    of religion that is available to us, I am reminded that people were overwhelmed by their
    existence and the many things that happened to them that were beyond their control. Early
    humans started sacrificing others in order to appease the powers and cause the powers
    to make the sun rise the next day, etc., etc.. As you know Abraham was ready to kill his
    son as a sacrifice to the God he understood (who demanded that one had to give life in ordered to gain life).
    None of these early practices was about change. It was about to survive, even to survive
    after death. Surely they all would make changes, and change, if they thought that would make
    their god happy.
    I am currently reading a book by Ernest Becker entitled: “The Denial of Death”. This
    is a book that presents a psychiatric view of humanities need for religion, as well asother matters relating to the human condition. I am going to quote from pages 203 and 204:
    “But of course, religion solves the problem of death, which no living individuals can solve,
    no matter how they would support us. Religion, then, gives the possiblility of heroic victory
    in freedom and solves the problem of human dignity at its highest level. The two ontological
    motives of the human condition are both met: the need to surrender oneself in full to the rest
    of nature, to become a part of it by laying down one’s whole existence to some higher
    meaning; and the need to expand oneself as an individual heroic personality. Finally, religion
    gives us hope, because it holds open the dimension of the unknown and the unknowable,the
    fantastic mystery of creation that the human mind cannot even begin to approach, the possiblity
    of a multidimensionality of spheres of existence, of heavens and possibile embodiments…. In
    Religious terms, to “see God” is to die, because the creature is too small and finite to be
    able to bear the higher meaning of creation. Religion takes one’s very creatureliness,
    one’s insignificance, and makes it a condition of hope. Full transcendence of the
    human condition means limitless possibility unimaginable to us. …
    Otto Rank saw Christianity as truly great ideal foolishness in the sense that we have been
    discussing it: a childlike trust and hope for the human condition that left open the realm
    of mystery. Obviously, all religions fall far short of their own ideals, and Rank was talking
    about Christianity as practiced but as an ideal. Christianity, like all religions, have in
    practice reinforced the regressive transference into an even more choking bind: the fathers are
    given the sanction of the divine authority. But as an ideal, Christianity, on all the things we
    have listed, stands high, perhaps even highest in some vital ways, as people like Kierker\gaard,
    Chesterton, and Niebuhrs, and so many other have compellingly argued.”
    I am restraining myself from offering any more quotations from this book in order to raise some
    questions:
    1. Is our problem with the old paradigm with it dogmas, rituals, etc. related to our
    inability respond?
    2. Is the source of our inability to response related to rationality?
    3. Is there something we can do to replace what used to provoke response?

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