Below is a rather, um, caustic piece that I wrote in early 2004 in response to the "un-church" rage (what? you missed that rage? you're so uncool!). The "un-church" movement was/is essentially a riff on the old-but-ever-new silly spouting about Jesus being wonderful and relevant, while religion, Church, and wearing ties are oppressive, dull, and anti-"spiritual". Some of this is a bit dated and I would change a few things if I re-wrote it. Still, perhaps of moderate interest.
The Un-Church Phenomenon: Some Observations and a Lexicon | Carl E. Olson
When my final Protestant pastor (a good man and dear friend) saw that I was becoming deadly serious about entering the Catholic Church, he made one last, desperate pitch. "Why don't you found your own church?" he asked. "Wouldn't that be better?"
Um, no. I certainly didn't think so. Still don't. But it is very appealing to many, many people. The result? Some 35,000 or so Christian denominations in the world, a large number of them in North America.
A January 2004 article, "The Un-churches," [no longer online] in the Denver Post, provides a revealing excursion into the world of small groups that are springing up in the Denver area and, more importantly, into the thinking and beliefs of the twenty and thirty year olds who are founding them.
The names of these "churches" offer some clues as to the general approach: The Journey, Pathways, The Next Level, Connected Life Church, The Crossing, New Life Church, Pierced Chapel, and (I'm not making this up) Scum of the Earth Church.
My thought, upon reading this article, is that those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it. There is much that is good about the intentions of these groups and there is much that is near-sighted and theologically-skewed. Not surprisingly, there is a strong emphasis on the individual, rejection of structure, love for "freedom," and "expression." That's not too original, as anyone who's older than, say, twenty-eight can tell you. On the other hand, there is some talk of connecting with the past and of knowing history. But it seems that this "connecting" takes on rather shallow and pretentious forms: lots of candles, Celtic crosses, and some neo-Gregorian chanting. As though wrapping yourself in the flag of the past makes you wise to the reality of the past.
Just this last week I had a lengthy conversation with Mike, a 22-year old who attends a "Christian Center" (which is Assemblies of God) and who has been "saved for two years and five months" (he mentioned this fact at least four times). We spoke of many things, but the comment that stood out the most was one that I've heard so many times, albeit in slightly different forms: "I'm all about loving Jesus. I'm not into theology or religion." As in: Jesus is good, dogma is bad. Jesus is great, Church is stuffy. Jesus rocks, ritual blows.
Recently, my local paper had a similar article, titled " 'Unchurch' services: Nondenominational congregations grow in popularity." It was full of the same annoying blather about being freed from ritual, having warm feelings about Jesus, and dancing in the aisles. The top "Quote of the Clueless" comes from Gary Clark, the pastor of a Pentecostal mega-church. Pastor Clark one time starred in a series of local television commercials pitching his "un-church" that were so hokey and painfully stilted that even the Holy Spirit would have been hard pressed to work through them. The article states:
Gary Clark, senior pastor at Eugene Christian, says it didn't take long after arriving in 1980 to figure out that many people here are skeptical of mainline churches. "They don't like being told what to do, and they don't like that heavy-handed approach to religion," he says. "Churches that are just there to defend the faith and perpetuate the traditional past—people are staying away from those churches in droves."
Ah yes, those stick-in-the-mud, uptight Christians who are concerned about defending what they believe and think that tradition and the past are important. You know: Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Aquinas, and Co. What a bunch of losers and morons those guys were, huh?
Since many Catholics—and perhaps a few non-Catholics—aren't familiar with "un-churches" and their lingo, I thought I'd provide a short, but hopefully helpful, lexicon of "un-church-ese." Here we go….
"A sign from God" I have a good feeling about this un-church. Plus, the refreshments after the worship service were tasty.
"Anointing" I cried during the worship service for no reason.
"Communion" Crackers or pizza. Add soda or juice. Read John 6:63. Celebrate at the end of the service, taking no more than seven minutes.
"Contemporary" Lots of lights, loud music, t-shirts, and a sixteen-year-old pastor
"Dynamic" Killer bass and guitar riffs during the "Mosh With the Messiah!" worship service.
"Freedom" The pastor doesn't wear a tie, and he doesn't use notes or a pulpit when he shares the special word that God has laid on his heart.
"Authentic" I don't feel compelled to wear nice clothes.
"God told me…" I'm more spiritual than you.
"No structure" Nobody appears to be in charge or know what's going on. Ain't that great!?
"Non-conventional" My parents don't attend with me. Ain't that even greater?!
"Non-denominational" My un-church was established three years ago. We're just like the first Christians.
"Minister" (n.) The sixteen-year-old up front.
"minister" (v.) I talk one-on-one about myself, my feelings, my needs, etc.
"Personal lord and savior" You know, Jesus. Sheez, are you Catholic?
"Religion" The evil attempt of man to reach God. Invented by the Vatican in 325 A.D.
"Spiritual" Good. I'm very spiritual, by the way.
"Testimony" I talk in front of the entire group about myself, my feelings, my needs, etc.
"Theology" Boring. Invented by sadistic monks during the Dark Ages, which was a long time ago, even before MTV.
"Tradition" Very, very bad. Invented by a Pope in 666 A.D.
"Word of God The Bible. I read it and the Left Behind books every day.
"Worship" Jesus meets rock n' roll.
(Disclaimer: This lexicon has not yet been approved for ecumenical use. Anyone offended by it may send their complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.)