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[This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Cryptomnesia: : How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.]
By Chris Chakoian
Question authority. The phrase may have emerged in the’60s, but it has only gained steam. People form their own opinions regardless of social norms. How does this impact the church? The standards, beliefs, and disciplines that mainline denominations long provided are no longer honored by the culture. And even many within the church freely question authority.
Sociologist Robert Bellah introduced “Sheilaism” to describe the individualistic American religious consumer. (“Sheila” defined her faith as “my own Sheilaism”: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other.”[i]) Well, Bellah wants us to know that do-it-yourself faith is no longer just for the unchurched:
I think we can say that many people sitting in the pews of Protestant and even Catholic churches are Sheilaists who feel that religion is essentially a private matter and that there is no particular constraint on them placed by the historic church, or even by the Bible and the tradition. … 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.” … “Sheilaism” implies that there could be 316 million different religions for every person living in America.[ii]
If that was true thirty years ago, how much more is it the case today.
Yet having some mutual accountability is essential for life together. As Thomas Friedman writes, human beings “need agreed-upon norms of behavior … ways of establishing authority and building communities, doing work, … and determining whom to trust.”[iii]
So where do we find authority and structure community when tradition, hierarchy, and discipline have been flattened? I doubt that it’s going to be in our current pattern – what Diana Butler Bass describes as church-as-corporation:
American churches were organized on the same principles and structures as were twentieth-century American corporations. Beginning around 1890, denominations built massive bureaucratic structures, … complete with corporate headquarters, program divisions, professional development and marketing departments, franchises (parish churches), training centers, and career tracks. … As a Presbyterian elder once sighed to me, “Our church is like GM, only we sell faith.”
People’s deepest need is not another corporate product. Our deepest need is to belong and grow in trustworthy and authentic community. To have a place where it is safe to be real, where we are known and loved both for our gifts and in spite of our flaws … where we are urged to be our better selves as we seek to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ. The ekklesia,the household of God, offers this.
The early church discovered three simple rules for the household of God:
- Valuing each person’s gifts: Instead of starting with the question “what job description needs to be filled?” what if we started with the question, “What gifts is the Spirit evidencing in our midst?”
- Building up the household in love: Instead of seeing gifts as prizes to be ranked, what if we saw them as blessings to be shared for the well-being of the community, what they contribute to “the common good” (1 Cor 12:7)?
- Aspiring to Christlikeness: Instead of “consuming” the church’s product to meet our needs, what if we sought to grow more and more like Jesus, growing in the likeness of Christ? (cf. Col 3:16; 1 Thess 4:18; 5:11, 14; 1 Cor 14:31; Rom 15:14).
The era of top-down authority is over. But that doesn’t mean there is no authority. There is shared authority through the abundant gifts of the Spirit given to all. There is mutual accountability in the household of Christ. And there’s a high calling that shapes everything we do: to grow more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. That’s more than enough for us to move ahead with “a future filled with hope” (Jer 29:11). That’s more than enough for us to reach out to the world in Christ’s name.
[iii] Friedman, 238.
Rev. CHRISTINE CHAKOIAN is Pastor and Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, Illinois. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois, Yale Divinity School, and McCormick Theological Seminary (DMin). Co-host for Abingdon Press’s Covenant Bible Study, she is an editor and writer for Feasting on the Word and the author of the forthcoming Abingdon Press book, Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church. Chris also serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.