Outlined against a blue, grey October sky, F and I braved the wind this afternoon to get outside for a walk (and to clear our minds after yet another Irish loss – seriously, guys? Navy?).
As we strolled through our neighborhood with S and the beagle, our conversation turned to a tombstone sign stuck in the lawn of a home down our street. “The End Is Near,” it proclaimed in looming letters. Though it looked like the kind of chintzy Halloween decor one usually finds in the aisles of Target this time of year, it was actually a promotion for an area church.
“You’re kidding me,” F said when I filled him in on their latest gimmick to attract attention with an “edgy” topic for a sermon series related to the season.
“Nope,” I replied. “And you should see the sign they have outside their church. Complete with ghostly hands and blood dripping from the letters.”
“So what are they giving away this time?” F asked, reminding me of the car that was recently raffled away to a randomly drawn newcomer at their weekend services. Before that, it was season tickets to the NFL team in town. And before that, it was free Chipotle burritos to everyone who showed up on Sunday.
“Who knows; maybe your pick of where to spend the afterlife?” I replied.
All kidding aside, we got into an interesting conversation about the nature and longevity of these new nondenominational churches. We often get flashy mailings from such churches (many of which look like the cover of Cosmo magazine and boast topics like “How to Have An Affair!”), and we see signs popping up at area movie theaters or elementary schools advertising the latest church “plant” gathering there. As we pass their crowded parking lots on Sunday to ease our car into a Catholic parish with plenty of available spots, it does make one wonder what they’re doing that we’re not.
But the reality is that such churches tend to have very high turnover rates. They’re great at grabbing attention, proclaiming they’re “not churchy,” and getting people intrigued enough to set foot in the door. But when it comes to staying power, many fizzle out after a few years, once the charismatic pastor moves on to something bigger or the members are persuaded to try out yet another new congregation.
I told F that while I think the Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant denominations have much to learn from the popularity of these churches – such as the way they use media and technology, and their focus on small groups within larger congregations – I think their fundamental problem lies in their lack of tradition and history. I’ve known a few young, idealistic pastors of nondenominational churches who talked passionately about how their congregation wasn’t going to be bogged down by the problems of other churches with their hierarchies and politics, that their churches would get back to the heart of Christianity by living like the first Christians did in the New Testament.
“But they ignore the fact that people have been trying to follow the Gospel for 2,000 years, and we continue to come up against the same sinful structures, the same human flaws, that we’ve always struggled with,” I said to F. “Human nature doesn’t change, and you can’t turn a blind eye to the history of how people have tried (and failed!) to follow Jesus Christ for years and years before you came along.”
This is the beauty of a tradition like Catholicism, steeped in centuries of thinking and praying and serving and challenging how to remain faithful to the heart of Christ’s message. We are certainly a church that is as flawed and broken as every other tradition, full of flawed and broken human beings. But one of the things I treasure about being Catholic is our history and tradition that reminds us we are not alone in seeking and struggling to live in right relationship with our God.
It’s a good reminder for me in terms of parenting as well. Barraged by a constant stream of the latest theory, the latest study, the newest fear, the newest product, it can be overwhelming as a new parent to discern what to trust and where to follow. One book proclaims x, the next insists y. Our parents did it this way, but our pediatrician says absolutely not.
Yet people have been raising children for thousands of years. There are centuries of wisdom and knowledge, history and tradition, that aren’t necessarily the latest headline or best-selling guide. And as parents, we develop an instinctual, practical wisdom that comes from knowing our children better than anyone else. When do we trust our gut – or our grandmother – instead of today’s popular guru?
Living in the tension – living into the questions, as Rilke writes – involves a both-and. We want our churches to be both relevant and rooted. We want our parenting to be both savvy and seasoned. It’s a tricky balance, and one that calls for much prayer and patience.