Religion Dispatches is one of those outlets you read to keep an eye on people you disagree with pretty much all the time. It provides secular coverage of religion, politics and culture and is decidedly left-leaning. Today there appeared a piece from a United Church of Christ pastor from Wisconsin that was so close to right on, buyt not quite. His basic thesis:
Trouble is, nobody listens to religious leaders these days. Nobody. Not even their own people.
One heck of a point there, and one that is definitely true among protestants, though American Catholics are pretty much the same way, even if if not in the rest of the world. He also does a really succinct job of explaining the “why:”
To say that isn’t so much evidence of religion’s demise as it is that the structures of belief are changing. In particular, the nature of authority is shifting: it used to be that bishops could speak normatively ex cathedra, that is by virtue of their hierarchical position. No longer. These days, authority is relational: I can tell you what’s right and wrong because you know and trust me.
But when he gets to a solution to this problem, well, that’s where he goes a bit wrong.
Daniel Schultz’ solution:
These days, we have a bumper crop of political leaders who stake their claim in reality that social life is a zero-sum game of vicious competition. It would be helpful for religious leaders to challenge that claim with one of their own: that we were created not for hate, but for relationship and cooperation.
Pastor Schultz there forgets one of the more fundamental tenants of Christianity – we are all sinners. Before we can present a vision for a sinless world we have to deal with the sin. It should be noted that dealing with sin is most decidedly not the politicians job. Their job, in a nutshell, is to take things as they are presented to them and attempt to organize us in a reasonably functional fashion. It is the church’s job to deal with the sin and thus give the politicians a better reality to work with. The politics of the day are as tumultuous as they are because the church is not doing a good job right now.
Schultz is right in pointing out the lack of effectiveness of the ex cathedra pronouncement and the rise of the relationship. but the reason is much deeper than the rise of social media and the subsequent social upheaval. Pronouncements from on high may set policy, but relationship changes lives. Policy is meaningless if there is no relational connection to the organization. Successful bloggers learned way early in the phenomena that gave rise to social media that it was less about what you said and more about the community you built around the blog.
But the reason relationship matters so much is as old as the church itself – that’s how you change lives on the deepest level. God Himself spent a long time making ex cathedra pronouncements only to figure out that He had to incarnate and make some relationships. And then those relationships, made relationships, and they made relationships, and pretty soon the world was changed in massive ways. But somewhere along the line the institutions we built to help with the relationship building became things unto themselves and we stop building relationships and focused way too much on the institution. That does not mean the institutions are bad, they are victims of the corruption of sin just like we are. But also like us they can be redeemed.
But if the church is to begin once again changing lives so that the reality the politicians have to cope with is better, then it needs to return to relationship, not vision. The vision was set a long, long time ago. The church needs to figure out how to quit using social media as a communication tool and use it as a relationship tool – most importantly to build a bridge over which the relationship can move from virtual to very real and personal.