Teachable moments in church history

It's one thing to suggest that the institutional church is failing. It's another to say that the phenomenon is brand spanking new. More appropriately put, institutional churches are always failing. But that has to do with bureaucratic formal organization. Never be surprised when human ventures in community go "the way of all flesh."

And yet, in the title link, David Housholder is surprised. And it's apparently the end of the world as we know it. This is nothing new for him, and I've commented on it before. But this time he's not talking about denominational churches participating in demographic stagnation. No; this time it's a characteristically American conservative rant about how all of society is on the downward spiral to failure. "The rusting of our major institutions," as he puts it, saying he's "a pessimist about the ability of our major institutions to survive this century." (In spite, of course, of his natural optimism "for the human race and for creation in general.")

And what institution heads the list? The church.
Arguably the most resilient of all institutions (outliving languages and nations, and all ideologies), the church has gone "sideline" in the space of one generation. The church was the only major institution to survive the fall of the Roman Empire. Irrelevant and ignored are the two adjectives that come to mind when I think of the 21st century church.

Virtually no explicit Christian leaders, for the first time in two millennia, are first-team varsity culture-shapers on our planet. We don’t even have an Oprah, let alone a Churchill.

Today’s 15-year-olds to 30-year-olds are ignoring the church in unprecedented droves.

Most denominational organizations are ripped apart by political issues. Christianity is fragmented like never before.

And this, friends, is a teachable moment in church history. Because mister Housholder wasn't paying attention, apparently, when they covered the history sequence in seminary. Or he's willing to act like it for some reason.

Let's begin with a positive sketch of the caricature found here. One institutional church with an unbroken line of influence extending back to before the fall of the Roman Empire. One consistently influential institutional church, whose influence has only waned in the last 25 years. 2000 years of high-quality, powerful and explicitly Christian social and political leaders, shaping culture. All fast fading because we lost the last generation. Oh, and did I mention, this once vast and powerful institution is now breaking apart into little bits over politics? Very sad. Of course, its function will go on, but let us pause to reflect on the passing of this spiritual giant of history.

Really? Seriously? Would you like to look at the books and reconsider your answer? Because not even Rome seriously believes in that, and they and the Eastern churches are the only ones with any kind of claim to that sort of historical presence and endurance. (Though I see no evidence that Housholder is aware of the existence of Eastern Christianity, let alone in America. No, we're talking Western Protestant "church" here. Heir to the whole crumbling edifice.)

Obvious first point: Constantine's conversion. The "birth" of the institutional church. This is common, but false. The church lived as a countercultural entity under Rome, and an organized one, though in many different places and many different ways. It gained tolerance in Constantine, and lost it again in Julian, and got it back again. And mostly decided to write off its Judean origins and throw its proper patriarchs under the bus, to survive. But it was never natively an institution of Roman society. A significant part of it grew into such a role by playing politics, and becoming the most powerful non-Roman but Empire-spanning institution left standing. It kept that position by propping up imperial leadership around it, and becoming indispensable to it. And it kept on top of that position with temporal rulers by forging documents of European history -- the "donation of Constantine" for one. And by writing off the parts of itself that wouldn't play along. Which is part of how Housholder can tell a history of the church without the East. Not that the Byzantines didn't play their own imperial games, of course.

By the 11th century, the Western institutional church (with its own internal sectarian issues, and gaps in its history) wasn't playing the empire game; it was being played as part of that game, and it became less and less of a necessary piece, and more and more of an obstruction to the rulers of Europe and their games. And then, of course, we come to the Holy Roman Empire and its repristination of an unbroken chain of Christian history. And by magic, we have Roman popes in Constantine's day. And Petrine succession. And a whole host of powerfully-supported reasons for Europe not to screw with Rome. By which we mean the states that would come to be Germany and Spain.

And yet, to some degree, there's a truth there: people were basically religious, and Christianity was integral to the cultural life of most of the West. (Check out a globe to figure out how significant that influence was, really, in the middle ages before trans-oceanic exploration. Then look at the extent of the Byzantine missionary world, where it was true in different ways.)

And so also, part of the basic complaint is true: modernity is the first place where society segregates out the religious institutions from cultural life. But as long as we're talking Europe still, that's part and parcel of the reaction to the institutional church's own political pretensions to power. And it happened quite a bit before the 20th century! After the Reformations of the 16th century, European people are still basically connected to the church as a component of social life, and in many ways a driving one. Not that the people had been terribly religiously concerned about being in church for centuries before that point, but the social structure was still shaped by church forms. The churches of Europe were still dominant social support agencies, and the church hierarchy was still a significant political power. You see, the institutional church's life in Europe never depended on popular attendance. Every generation could be a mostly-lost generation, as long as the political structure was still ecclesiastical.

Here's a category error in Housholder's account, which is that he moves from the institutional church, a formal organization of authority vested in functionaries, to talking about its failure, to talking about the failure to reach 15-to-30-year-olds. As though they're intimately connected! It's a category error, and an Americanism to boot. The only reason why church structures of governance need attendance in America is because we have no established churches. The money is in the pews, and the state government doesn't mediate its distribution. And historically, this is a novelty! You see, American Christianity, in all its forms, exists either as an externally-supported or as an independent colonization. And even the externally-supported missions went their own ways after a short time on this continent. So to talk about "the" American institutional church, and especially to connect "it" all the way back to the existence of Christian communities surviving the fall of the Roman Empire, is fiction!

Oh, but wait -- he's led me on a wild goose chase yet again! What a sly fox. He has no interest in the existence of this institutional monolith. In fact, it works better because it's a fiction! His closing reveals the agenda:
Archaeology shows us that institutions calcify and end up in layers revealed by "digs." We may be facing revolutionary changes in our institutions. Many of us alive today may see these institutions (peacefully or otherwise) make way for new forms of completing the same tasks.

Even our cities may not survive. Cities (bigger and bigger) have to get their food from farther and farther away. They have to trade something in return for being fed. Cities cannot feed themselves. It used to be that cities, by concentrating people, could create innovation that they could sell to people who would feed them.

With technological and communication breakthroughs, people can live in Northern Alberta and create innovation in conversation with the whole world via technology. We don’t have to live in cities anymore.

Deurbanization (along with other things) killed the Roman Empire. Rome could no longer add value to the rural areas that were feeding the great city. People moved to the countryside and reorganized as local fiefdoms.

The 21st century is going to be the most revolutionary since the 6th century. Are you ready for it? What are you doing to position yourself to prevail?

"I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." Like so many demagogues who talk in respectful tones about the passing of present beloved institutions, he seems to be interested in speeding its demise along. Out with centralized structures and institutions, and in with the distributed small communities. It's revolution time! And this is church history repeating itself, too. "Get ready, because your time to shine is coming in the downfall of" ... well, whatever it is we're eagerly awaiting the downfall of. And for that, a fiction of apocalyptic authority overshadowing "us" works perfectly well. It does what all good apocalyptic narrative does: legitimate the underdog as the oppressed people of God, and uphold their future in the downfall of the now.



  1. All right, that comes out remarkably snarky and bitter. If I had to say it short: "Mister Housholder, I find your rhetoric disingenuous and overinflated. Your characterizations are false, but you pass them off as true, and they agree with your agenda. If you did a better job of it, and they seemed more nearly true, I might be inclined to consider you along with Lessing and others like him. As it is, it really bothers me that you use such blatantly bad historical work in theology to support your own propositions. It bothers me enough that I'm willing to waste a lot of time on the internet writing about it."


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