The other day a friend told me he had recently heard a sermon by a young minister who was leaving the church he had served as assistant pastor for five years. Looking back over that half-decade, he measured his ministry by an odd standard: “If during these five years I have caused just one person to ask a question, then my work among you has been a success.” One is tempted to grab a line like that and run with it in all directions, but I shall content myself with the simple observation that if there is one thing the Christian layperson already has today, it is questions—questions about God, about ethics, about social change, about clergy whose perception of the layperson’s needs is 180 degrees removed from the layperson’s self-perception.
A few years ago it was common for the theologian to call the Christian layman a “secular” man, and then to describe him in language that seems in retrospect to cluster about attributes the theologian admired in people who were in few respects like himself. That admirable man was on the move (the theologian stuck at the seminary), he was active (the theologian reflective), he was pragmatic (the theologian impractical), he had no need for religion (the theologian was burdened with doctrines he neither believed nor was quite free to disbelieve), and questions about the meaning or hope or purpose of existence were irrelevant to him (while the theologian agonized about them continually). The only thing wrong with this new-model secular Christian is that he is only one among many types living both inside and outside the visible church. In the church I attend as a worshiper and on the sessions of churches I work with as a presbyter and among the Christian faculty of the university where I teach, I find this secularist to be more puzzled, more tortured by doubt, more religious—in a word, more complex—than those theologians who lately danced about the maypole of secularization (to use Peter Berger’s figure) ever suspected.
Let me illustrate. Several months ago I was asked to meet with the elders and minister of a nearby church to hear disagreements that had arisen between them and to try to make some preliminary judgment about what the ministerial-relations committee of presbytery could do. It was a frustrating evening because no one seemed to be able to articulate just what was wrong, except that the church was slowly slipping downhill. Finally one exasperated man blurted out: “I know this will seem petty to you, Dr. Graham, but my main complaint is that my minister makes me feel like I’m on the losing side. Membership and attendance are down, the Sunday school is nonexistent, he won’t call on prospective members, and it seems to me that the reason for all this is that he doesn’t believe what we’re supposed to believe. So he can’t get excited about the Christian Gospel, we catch his discouragement, and one of these days we’ll wake up and find we have no church at all!”
This sense of being on the losing side is a discouraging product of secularization. The layperson believes, with pretty good historical evidence, that there was a time in Christendom when almost everyone believed the Christian message. But today the invisible world above, which both church and society once made real here below, seems more and more questionable. Society has largely quit embodying it, as man’s greatest works number among them fewer and fewer cathedrals and more and more giant business, military, or amusement complexes. He looks to his pastor to reassure him of the reality of God and His plan for mankind and gets instead the proclamation of doubt or the glorification of some faddish secular movement, and his spirit, if not the Spirit of God, is quenched. Far from acquiescing in this genteel agnosticism (though as a secularist he is supposed to have progressed beyond worry over such questions as whether life has meaning), he hurts and despairs like this elder, or searches desperately for evidence that the Gospel is true, or retreats into some impoverished meaning system of his own.
Of course, Christian laypeople come in every kind of package, from Toffler’s cool modular man, through angry Women’s Liberationists, to Black Panthers and frightened ghosts in the Ku Klux Klan. In the middle of that pack of extremists are some who seem to have no agony; a camping trip or a visit to Disneyland can make their world right again. But the search for some kind of assurance about the truth of their religion is a powerful component in the lives of many, as is the sense that the Church and its official leadership are not much help in their search. If there is an “average” layperson, that’s probably where he is.
For some the route to that assurance is the way of ecstasy. As an aunt of mine said, “Why not search for a convincing experience of God’s being when preachers and theologians have given us a stone?” I think a good case could be made that the way of ecstasy—glossolalia, healing, demonic exorcism, and so on—comes to the fore when (1) society no longer supports one’s self-esteem, and (2) culture no longer expresses one’s religious feelings and yearnings. Like the early Christians, we live in a society that counts no one as very valuable unless he is very rich, politically powerful, or otherwise famous. Family ties are loose, and most kinds of community (such as the village, and the ethnic enclave) have broken down. So the individual has little support in his human need to be accepted, regarded, and cared for. In the midst of an increasingly non-supportive social system, to be able to speak in tongues, for example, is positive, first-hand experience that Someone cares. Such religious energy, which St. Paul identified as an aspect of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, might in another age have been channeled into cultural expressions that mirrored an overarching religious understanding of life, such as music, art, cathedral-building, or even warfare (crusades).
The dark side of this route is that it can take the way of what might be called spiritual greed. Every pastor knows laypeople who will traverse land and sea in hope of getting the experience that will satisfy their need for religious assurance, but for whom multiple experiences just seem to increase the need. In their effort to seek the higher gifts, they read eagerly the latest from Keith Miller, drive in droves to hear Bruce Larson and the latest word from Faith at Work, laugh and revel with every name person who speaks within 200 miles, never miss a healing service, a neo-Pentecostal rally, a Jesus rock concert, or an evangelistic crusade. Never satisfied, they are like Luther with the Law—it compels their every effort but leaves them unsaved.
All of this helps reinforce in many laypeople another aspect of modern existence that bodes ill for the Church: the phenomenon Thomas Luckmann calls the “privatization” of religion. Since our society presents no overarching meaning system or coherent world-view, the individual is driven to find meaning for himself. He is forced to this, further, by the fact that the Church is no longer a primary institution; that is, unlike family, school, work, and government, it need never command his allegiance at any time in life if he doesn’t want it to. (And those institutions command his involvement but not his loyalty: all our institutions have failed us and are in trouble.)
But even the Christian who cares for the Church is pushed to privatize his values and his beliefs. He is driven to this partly because unbelief and diversity of belief are rampant within the churches themselves, partly because no strong belief system popular today really ties Christian doctrine and an unchristian world into a meaningful whole, and partly because the desperate quest for experience emphasizes the experiencing I over the claims of the Church to embody truth within itself. The sharpest illustration of this is that growing number of Catholic neo-Pentecostals who have found the two greatest gifts the church is supposed to incarnate—Truth and Life (Protestants would say Gospel and Grace)—outside the teaching authority and life-giving sacraments of the church. The Catholic Pentecostal really has no need of the church at all, and written efforts to convince himself that he still does seem very weak indeed.
White glow shining
In center board.
Left Right Front
Spears of bitter slaves
A serpent-eyed queen
A black king, smiling.
Rear support deliberately withheld
He clears in death the opening
Through which his King
Will checkmate evil.
While college students’ religious behavior probably cannot be projected to predict how they will behave later in life, it is instructive, I believe, to note what has gone on in the past couple of years on one campus. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of students who claim to have been converted. According to a questionnaire I gave out in a class of twenty-eight students, all twenty-eight consider themselves personally religious; yet attendance at public worship (in contrast to small-group prayer and Bible-study fellowships or at Transcendental Meditation seminars) and church membership were seen as important by only eight of those. It is perhaps no accident that the organizations that do the most work with students—and seem to have all the success!—are avowedly non-church. Not that Inter-Varsity, Young Life, and Campus Crusade for Christ do not believe in the Church and urge their converts to become active church members—for they do—but it is not lost on the young that the Gospel was proclaimed to them not by the churches as they know them but by these groups, which represent a thin, horizontal, evangelical slice from all the churches. One girl in a paper this spring contrasted what it meant to be a Christian and what it had once meant merely to be a church member as if the two states were mutually exclusive. Like her, laypeople who are not satisfied when the Church gives them a stone may well privatize and internalize their faith, sharing it with small communities of fellow believers and gradually abandoning the larger organized church to expire in its own anomie.
To summarize thus far, we see that secularization has eroded belief to the place where the layperson often feels a need for assurance that the Christian message is true. Society no longer assures him of this as it did his ancestors, who were indeed compelled in some instances to believe. Many are seeking this assurance through experiences that confirm the message for them, and because of the weight of confessional traditions, often such experiences are not available within a church but only in occasional groups or quasi-occultic fellowships. This reinforces the privatization of belief and values—already a strong trend in our pluralistic society—and is helped by and contributes to a sense of anti-institutionalism that is the other side of privatization.
Almost as an aside it should be said that the rejection of all our institutions as objects of loyalty (who today feels loyal to job or school?), the erosion of an overarching religious world-view, the uncertain quality of the churches’ proclamation of the Gospel, and the privatization of meaning and values in many cases push or allow modern church members to find their most precious associations in private or small-group activities that have no obvious religious connection but that help order life and determine priorities. Thus the power of golf, boating, and the Scots housewife’s bingo (to give obvious examples) lies partly in their anti-institutional, private character, as well as the chance they give to make choices and small judgments that give the participant some sense of control of his life. The church member so tempted may for a long time hesitate between church and hobby (or escape) and finally choose one or the other as central depending on the quality of life it seems to offer. It is no tribute to the way we proclaim the Gospel to observe how trivial are the islands of meaning people choose instead of the Church!
It is not, of course, a part of Christian faith to despair over the Church. A Scottish pastor recently told me in sepulchral tones, “Fred, the Church is going to die, and we’re privileged to preside at the burial.” Such gloom ignores the historical fact that the People of God have existed in almost every conceivable social form. They have been ass nomads in Mesopotamia, slaves in Egypt, bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula, a tribal confederation in Canaan, a small nation caught fatally between major powers, a refugee people, a tiny ghetto of believers in the Roman Empire, the warp and woof of the social fabric of Western Europe—and many other forms besides. Presumably God’s Spirit has worked and does work in, with, and under all kinds of social forms to create and preserve himself a people. So despair about the Church is hardly a prerequisite for a modern commentator on the religious scene, though there are enough who claim to be believers who show a lack of faith in the secret work of the Spirit of God.
But still we have been called to be the Church, God’s people, and we cannot claim to be disciplined seekers for wisdom if we give no thought to the malaise secular society has brought upon the Christian, nor fail to probe for ways of helping people find the Christian life a satisfying rather than a frustrating way. Obviously we are dealing with a crisis in belief, and if we take theology seriously we are not deluded into thinking that any tricks will change the world, or that any finesse of ours will miraculously convince a world that no longer believes. For example, coffeehouse ministries will not help young people to faith if those who run them do not believe in the Gospel. Nor will reintroducing prayer in the schools fool children brought up to believe rather that money, athletics, or knowledge determines the successful life.
I have twice used the biblical metaphor of hungry people who are given not bread but a stone. This metaphor suggests that what pastor and layperson alike need is bread—the sustenance God provided in his Word. And while the book that traces the history of God’s dealings with men contains many strands of literature and various modes of God’s communication with men, I want to highlight three of those in order to describe some qualities of that bread.
First, we must not—like some evangelicals—mute the prophetic message of judgment of all our social institutions, nor reduce it to a petty moralism of not drinking, whoring, and swearing. (Not that personal holiness is passé. Its relation to good theology has seldom been examined, but there is probably a close link between saintliness and theological honesty and faithfulness.) The negative side of this need for proclamation of the prophetic word of judgment and forgiveness is that lay Christians have had enough of ministers who do not build trust with their congregations, whose glib one-directional editorials on society therefore fall on ears that cannot hear because the modern prophets are negligent in their pastoral homework, and who then glorify themselves by pointing in anger at their “unchristian” people and (by implication) with pride to their own Amos-like fulfillment of prophetic office. What a faculty colleague recently said about educational reformers and change-agents applies to some ministers: they guarantee beforehand that they will fail, he says, because they never seriously relate to those they are trying to convince and change; they spend all their time communicating and never pause to listen.
I want to emphasize that when the minister proclaims the prophetic word, “Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream,” he is not called to substitute one social system for another. For example, he may become aware that the eroticization of American society (or the mechanization and genitalization of the God-given erotic) that threatens his children is a product of an acquisition business ethic released from community restraints. Far from being a sign of psychological and social health, Playboy, Oui, X-rated movies, and sexually stimulative advertising represent an exclusively genital focusing of psychic energy that is at least as warped as Victorian sexual repression. The modern prophet, looking longingly at the “Puritanism” of Communist societies, may be tempted to prescribe Communism as the antidote to Western commercially based prurience. But the biblical prophets did not plead for the substitution of a new social and economic system to replace the agrarian societies of Israel and Judah. For all social orders and economic systems are under the judgment of God. The preacher’s handling of the prophetic word in this instance must rather be a call to holiness, to community, to a life-style that stands as a barrier and a rebuke to sexual exploitation for any reason and under any guise.
Secondly, we cannot forget the apocalyptic note that has such an important (if neglected and scorned) part in the biblical proclamation. The apocalyptic message—whether from Daniel, Revelation, or the mouth of Jesus—is that when all is said and done, God is Lord. His ways are not our ways, and the belief that the world progresses toward better and better is a myth of dubious aid to the Christian walk, for the Christian should not expect salvation to come from the world.
There are some Christians, pastors and laypeople alike, who have believed that the proclamation of the prophetic word would purify our society, leading us to justice and peace. This is but one facet of the myth of progress. It has been a particularly pernicious one for many Christians, for they lose heart in the struggle against evil and begin to doubt the truth of the Christian message because they were led to believe men can be made just. In the Bible it was usually judgment and destruction that followed the message of the prophet.
As I write these words I have just heard that Arab assassins murdered almost the entire Israeli Olympic team in a fanatic and senseless act of destruction. So it is—so it has ever been. Crucifixion is still the lot of men, a fact we tend to forget in the upholstered suburbias of East Lansing and Mount Lebanon. “If in this world only we have hope, we are of all men to be pitied.” The apocalyptic word is that judgment and the end are finally in God’s hands, and while social quiescence is no more Christian than social activism, the salvation of the social order is not finally secured by the prophet. Judgment may come from the world—witness Assyria. But not salvation. Whether for the individual or for society, whether things seem to get better or grow worse, there is no New Jerusalem among men save it be let down out of heaven.
Finally, we must trust that the Gospel has not lost its power, and we must proclaim that Gospel in whatever ways are available to us and congruent with our responsibilities and personalities under the direction of God’s Spirit. The layperson has been put off and confused by voices that proclaim new gospels, as well as by others that claim to proclaim the old, but in reality, proclaim rigid spiritual formulas, lock-step methods to salvation, divisiveness, hatred, occultism, and thinly disguised socio-economic theories masquerading as Gospel, on the political left and the right. Somehow our proclamation and our lives must combine the universality of Paul, the love of John, the immediacy and personal holiness of Matthew and Mark, the open wonder and joy of Luke and Acts. And this must be done within the tension caused by holding tightly to both Cross and Resurrection. For it is the Cross that focuses the human condition in all its bitterness and all its horror, and it is the Resurrection that proclaims the final response of God: his promise of freedom from sin, the overcoming of death, and abundant life at last.
As a part-time pew-sitter and semi-layman myself, I could write much more about the layperson. His fear and delight in new musical and worship forms, for example; or his belief that the Church is valuable to him, and his unrest when its programs turn out to be trivial as well as time-consuming. Or I could point to many who seek in the Church the sense of a caring community that our mobile, anonymous society denies us; but they want that community to support, never reject, them, not knowing that members of traditional communities came to one another’s help in time of need, but also viewed those whose actions hurt the morale of the community with suspicion and alarm. I could write of his need to have the Christian faith “modeled” and his frustration when the pastor refuses to be that model. But most of all, he wants assurance that the Gospel makes sense of life, that it is true, that others believe it and are trying to live out its daily requirements. If the Church—clergy, laymen, and laywomen—are faithful here, then the treasure we hold in earthen vessels will not be spilled and lost in a hungry and thirsty world.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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