I have decided to pick up and read a decade old book, Transforming Congregational Culture, by Anthony B. Robinson.* As I move through this book, I intend to write a few posts along the way about either quotes that resonate with me, or about pieces I see that have especially changed (good or bad) since Robinson wrote this.
So, in this line of reflection, from the beginning chapter which he entitles, “The Challenge We Face, Part I,” Robinson offers a good opening summary of some of the more recent challenges which mainline Christianity has faced. Most of these are still the reality today, and some of them have become even more pronounced. But one quote in particular really strikes me. He writes in unpacking the challenge as he sees of “new religious pluralism”:
If mainline Protestant congregations did a good job, by and large, of welcoming the newcomers and making a home for them in America, these same congregations were less successful in helping their own members do what any pluralistic situation requires: giving a credible account of one’s own faith and one’s reasons for holding it. Inevitably, the presence of “the Other” raises questions about who we are and what that means. (Robinson, 7)
I am not going to focus on the idea of the other here. (That is something that you will no doubt see as this blog continues, being an important piece to understand in a theology of neighbor love.) Rather, I am going to focus on the role of the church and the identity of the individual.
When facing someone who is different than you, someone who holds a different perspective or understanding, in order to converse with them on a deeper level, you are forced to come to terms with: 1) who you are; 2) what do you think?; 3) what do you believe?; and perhaps the more important question, 4) why do you think and believe that?
Mainline congregations have not done so well in preparing people to answer these questions and Robinson was recognizing this in 2003. Now that it is 2013, I believe this is still a challenge the church as a whole struggles mightily with. But particular congregations and contexts have come up with unique ways to address this. They do so with one definite similarity in my mind, a goal of depth. To tackle such questions as “who are you? and “what do you think?” requires an ability for one to open themselves up and be vulnerable, but also to dive deep below the surface into who we are and what we believe. For some congregations this is part of a “Faith Formation” program, ministry, or vision. For other congregations, this is part of an “Animate” or a “Build Your Own Personal Theology” program. For others, this is part of their understanding of stewardship and vocation. There does not seem to be necessarily a “one size fits all approach,” and I actually think that is a good thing.
The important fact is that more and more congregations recognize this. To really engage with the stranger or neighbor, whether its someone who is “like us” or not, who might share similarities in some ways or not, we have to have a sense of the depth of who we are. Otherwise, that relationship and connection with one another will never get past the surface.
Depth matters. Some congregations have figured this out. Others I fear are so focused on doing things, and perhaps way too many things, that only breadth seems to matter. But what good is breadth, if its all left at the surface?
My gut reaction is that each of these things must be forced to answer the question of depth, “why do we do what we do?” so we can better articulate who we are, both for ourselves and for others.
* Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003).