Although I still love a good Pinot Noir, it has been several years since I’ve experienced a serious hangover–and I don’t miss them. I don’t make these comments out of any sense of “holier than thouness;” I just enjoy good wine without the pounding headache the following morning (although it took some time for me to figure that one out).
Ever have a hangover? Not pretty, is it? Headaches for some folks; nausea for others–and if you’ve really tied one on, both; a real sense of feeling like (fill in your favorite hangover adjective here). Regret for some; a “whatever” attitude for others. (I’ve found the “whatever” attitude tends to be most prevalent among the younger, more resilient set–it was for me back in the 80’s). And some people, unfortunately, seem to live in a constant hangover cycle.
We know better. We know what’s going to happen if we overindulge. Still, for whatever reason, we overindulge anyway and…hangover. Gee, how’d that happen?
It would be great if I could say that once I became serious about my religious commitments that I never had another hangover. It would be great, and it would be dishonest. You see, I think God–or at least our perception of God and/or God’s representatives and institutions–has been the source of many, many hangovers. And not all of them involve alcohol and drugs.
First there was the Constantinian hangover. I’m sure the earliest church leaders enjoyed being courted by the Emperor and debating theology at his seaside estate in Nicaea. Let’s face it, folks; compared to being lion food, there was no contest. At the same time, by coming out of the houses and tombs and into the public square, I think the church lost a lot of its early edginess–things like divergent theologies, scriptures, women leaders and more of a sense of God’s kindom in caring for the poor and outcast in the community. I think we can safely say that none of those council trips were free; the church paid–and sometimes still pays–dearly. Big hangover!
Then there was the Reformation hangover meant to address the Constantinian hangover. As leaders, women for the most part were still out; but at least “common folk” could read and interpret scripture for themselves. No pope. No priests. No Holy Roman Empire. Of course with such diversity of thought comes a whole new set of issues with which to contend; and therefore, denominations were born, each with its own hierarchy and take on what it meant to be a “real” Christian. Then there were those pesky Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists who largely refused to play by the established rules of either Catholic or Protestant Christianity. These–and other–groups took what they needed from Christianity and left the rest.
Denominationalism turned out to be quite the hangover inducer itself. Seeking respectability, each group–even the Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists (who merged in 1961) shored up its own structure and sense of “orthodoxy”–although some groups went much further than others in their processes. Please don’t misunderstand me; I love good organization, structure and order–just ask anyone who knows me. Still, I believe overindulging in these things has caused quite the hangover for our churches today.
So to address that hangover, sometime during the 1990’s non-denominational groups (or groups with very loose denominational ties) became more prominent than in past years. I believe Rick Warren’s book “Purpose Driven Church” drove a lot of the interest in this movement; and while I do not agree with Warren’s theology, he does have some great ideas about church structure, organization and so on. Warren and others tapped into the current culture and its need for entertainment and convenience. Co-opt the music styles, fashions, and language of the current culture, mix it with some simple, black and white conservative theology, offer multiple services on various days and boom–the mega church is reborn! This formula worked for a long time, too. In fact, in some areas of the country it still works–although perhaps not as well as it did in the past.
Now we have what I call the “Cultural Convenience Hangover.” That is, as the cultural music styles, fashions, language, time commitments, etc. continue to rapidly change, a lot of churches are struggling to keep up with these changes. And if they don’t keep up, the stakes in members and money can be very high. Some leaders might even feel they’ve somehow failed God by not bringing enough people to Jesus. You see, we’ve overindulged in cultural convenience. And we all know what happens when we overindulge, right? Hangover!
I recently experienced the effects of the Cultural Convenience Hangover. In April our church is going from two services at 9 and 11 a.m. on Sundays to one service at 10:00 a.m. There’s been no church drama, split, etc. to drive this change. Realities like kid’s soccer games and other activities on Sunday, professional relocations, etc. have resulted in lower attendance in the past year. Our sanctuary can now accommodate the average attendance of both services. While new people are attending church, they have not fully made up for those who are now occasionally attending our church due to other scheduled commitments. So our board voted unanimously to move to the new schedule. We’re trying it for a few months, and as I explained to the congregation, should the need for two services arise due to consistent increased attendance, we will promptly address that need.
Fortunately there hasn’t been a huge outcry, which speaks to the maturity of most of our congregants. At the same time, there are a few folks who have said they will no longer attend after Easter due to the new schedule. Why not? The time is no longer convenient. That’s it. Job obligations are not involved. Other important commitments are not involved. It is simply a matter of convenience–and we are no longer convenient for them. I respect their decisions; and at the same time those decisions frustrate me. Guess that’s what I get for being so “liberal,” huh?
Let me be clear. Religiously speaking, I am quite open . I make sure everyone who comes to our church knows that all peaceful expressions of spirituality–Christian and other than Christian–are welcome. Atheists, agnostics, humanists–everyone–is welcome at our church and they are invited to fully participate in the life of our church (and that includes receiving communion, if they are so inclined). For me, such inclusion is part of what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus.
All that said, the church–any church–is not here primarily for our convenience. Or as that great theologian Pink once said, “I’m not here for your entertainment.” Church–for me– is largely about community. And in community we do our best to work together; and that means we all have to make individual sacrifices at times for the good of the whole. And while all the world’s great religions emphasize love, there is also a very strong component of communal responsibility and accountability in these traditions.
Who knows? Maybe that lack of communal responsibility, sacrifice and accountability has been at the core of all our ecclesial hangovers. That is, we’ve overindulged in convenience–in the forms of Constantine, Luther, Warren, etc.– to the point when we can no longer sustain the high convenience brings, the hangover kicks in.
Maybe it’s time for a bit of recovery…
Blessings on your journeys!