Monday, March 16, 2009

Getting (And Keeping) Our Story Straight

The new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) came out last week, and the news for nearly all religious groups in the US was not good. Since the last ARIS was conducted (1990), nearly every religious group in the US lost ground, this despite the fact that the US gained some 50 million new adults during that same period, largely due to immigration. Even Catholics and Baptists, who had believed themselves immune from the declines mainline Protestants have suffered for decades, posted significant (not just statistical) losses.

Buried in the story about the survey and the denominational decline it documents is this one little, seemingly innocuous, statement: More than ever before, people are just making up their own stories of who they are. There. Did you see it? People are no longer looking to religion in general or the Church in particular to define for them their “stories.” Now, they just make up their own as they go along. I’m reminded of Sheila in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart. She’s a kind of fuzzy-thinking, postmodern new-ager whose “faith” she calls “Sheilaism.” She says: “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church or read my Bible or junk like that. My faith has carried me far. It’s Sheilaism, just my own little voice.”

You see, it used to be that that’s what we went to Church for – to listen to a Voice larger than “just my own little voice;” to find our place in a Story bigger than just “the story of our lives.” Believing that history is finally His-Story, we gathered each week, amidst the din of cacophonous voices out there–all vying to tell us who we are and what we’re about and where we’re going–to listen to another Voice and to find our place in another Story. We opened the Scriptures and in those events and persons and places and ideas we caught a glimpse of who we are and Whose we are and what we’re about. We called it “Gospel,” because it was, indeed, “good news” finally to get our story straight. It gave us altitude and perspective; it gave us purpose and hope; it gave us vision and values. And, as a result, we could re-enter that world out there with all its cacophonous voices and clamorous stories and not be deterred or dissuaded or deflected from our destiny.

Having our story straight gave us the courage to look at people with level gaze and say: “I’m a Christian…I don’t believe in Nature (sui generis and sovereign); I believe in Creation. I’m a Christian…I don’t believe in luck; I believe in Providence. I’m a Christian…I don’t believe in ethical pathology or moral dysfunction or just plain “oops” or “uh oh;” I believe in sin. I’m a Christian…I don’t believe in self-actualization; I believe in salvation. I’m a Christian…I don’t believe in conflict resolution; I believe in something harder and better–confession and repentance and forgiveness. I’m a Christian…I don’t believe we propagate ourselves through slick marketing or good customer relations; I believe in conversion and baptism. It’s harder and takes longer and reaches deeper and transforms more completely.

Forget our story and we forget who we are and Whose we are and what we’re about. That’s why we go to church on Sundays (in case you're wondering why go to church on Sundays) – to re-learn our Story; to re-claim our history and heritage; to rehearse our parts in the Play so that we don’t have to slog along through life making up our own little stories as we go.

There are still churches out there that believe that this is the mission and agenda of the Church. Not yours? Then find one that does. Hurry, while you still have your Story!

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