Monday, May 18, 2009

A Few Humble Suggestions to Improve the Church

Last week, I had a fairly interesting discussion with a friend of mine about Christianity…I won’t bore you with all the details, but ultimately, on Friday night, he sent me an email inviting me to go to church with him…I relied cautiously, “I’ll consider it. Thanks.” Perhaps I should’ve been more enthusiastic about his offer, but the truth is: In my lifetime, I’ve been to a number of church services, and based on those services, I’m not confident that church is the best place to advance my spirituality. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-church, or anti-Christian, per se. In fact, I consider myself to be “pro-Jesus” (I’ll have to explain that term another time). But for now I only want to reinforce the point that each person has to craft their own path to God (and whether attending church helps facilitate that path – or hinders it – is up to each individual).

Nevertheless, my friend’s invitation forced me to confront some of my own qualms about church. And after thinking about, I’ve decided to be bold enough to actually MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS about how the church could be more appealing to skeptical people like myself. I’ve decided to make this very easy. I have NO recommendations to make about Christian doctrine. In other words, I have nothing to say about the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the literal truth of every word of the Bible, etc., etc. Furthermore, I have NO recommendations about how the Church should conduct its internal affairs. In other words, I have nothing to say about female priests, gay ministers, baptism, etc., etc. ALL of my recommendations are consistent with Christian doctrine (theoretically), and therefore, they should be acceptable to the faithful (again, theoretically). However, I do think these recommendations are important, and if even only 2 or 3 of them are adopted, I am confident that it would create a stronger and larger church.

Recommendation #1: Focus more on the individual. So much of church is about “serving others.” I’m not sure if most church members enjoy that message. Perhaps they enjoy a once-a-week reminder to abandon their selfishness and hold the door open for old ladies. But personally, I don’t have much use for it. After 4 or 5 times, I feel like shouting, “Alright, I got the message!” Instead of reinforcing the message of “serving others” over and over again, I think the church should focus more on helping the INDIVIDUAL grow and reach his full potential. In my opinion, once a person SERVES HIMSELF by achieving self-confidence and a strong, open mind, he is better equipped to “serve others.” Putting the cart before the horse (in this case, “others” before “oneself”) is in the best interest of no one.

Recommendation #2: Focus less on the Bible. In my vision, the church should use the Bible in the same way that Congress uses the Constitution. When it comes to politics, the Constitution sets a foundation and establishes timeless principles (i.e., freedom of speech, federalism, etc.). But once those things are achieved, Congress has an incredible amount of leeway to conduct its business as it sees fit (although they remain accountable to the voters, of course). In the same way, the Bible can be used to set a religious framework (an overarching philosophy of understanding man’s relationship with God, etc.), but we – as a congregation – should have leeway in deciding most of the details. The traditional approach of seeing the Bible as a point-by-point guide to living (and not just SOME facets of living, but ALL of aspects) would drive a spiritual seeker like myself crazy – because the Bible is full of contradictions and laws that have no practical use in the modern world (see Leviticus, for example).

Recommendation #3: Encourage people to THINK about their faith, and not just FEEL it. I’m not naïve enough to suppose that most people adopt a religion for intellectual reasons (it’s almost purely a product of emotion). But that’s precisely why rational thinking and learning should be encouraged. The goal should be empower Christians with facts and arguments to defend their faith and perhaps (if they so chose) participate in the Culture War (rather than merely say “it feels good to me” and then retreat into their own cultural niche). Needless to say, I am not confident that even 20% of Christians could make a rational argument in defense of their faith. And that reflects poorly on them. And the church.

Recommendation #4: Stop the Hang-Up on Sex. I share the traditional Christian viewpoint that sex within marriage is certainly the ideal form of sex. And I am not opposed to the Church expressing that view as a matter of principle. But let’s face it: The traditional Church spends an inordinate (and wasteful) amount of time about the supposed evils of premarital sex, non-reproductive forms of sex, homosexual sex, pornography, contraception, etc., etc., etc. Quite frankly, I find this a little tiresome and annoying. And as I’ve said before (and the evidence backs me up), the Church’s sexual hang-up is almost certainly the Number One reason why people avoid a religious commitment. And that’s a real shame. Again, I’m not saying the Church should condone what they consider to be “sexual deviancy;” I’m just saying they should keep mum about it. As we see in the case of Leviticus (and other parts of Scripture), the church has the power to either emphasize or DE-emphasize certain moral commandments upon their choosing. The commandments on sex should be DE-emphasized accordingly.

Recommendation #5: Stay out of politics. This will be a hard recommendation to follow. After all, there are issues like abortion where it would certainly seem appropriate for the church to be a major player. But the fact is, Jesus had it right when he declared: “Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s.” Politics is almost inherently corrupting to religion. The two domains should be kept separate. And from the perspective of someone like me (who is outside the church but intrigued by it), it is also a bit distasteful. Do we really want a litmus test whereby pro-choice people feel like outsiders in their own church? As for more the “liberal” churches like the Unitarian Universalists (which are obsessed with global warming), do they really want to exclude people who aren’t convinced that climate change is evil? I don’t know if the answer IS “no,” but it SHOULD be “no.”

I just created this list today. Perhaps I’ll think of some other recommendations down the line. It’s certainly not set in stone. And I certainly encourage other people to weigh in, as well.


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