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Ghostly and Monstrous Churches

by James F. Hopewell

At the time of his death in 1984, James F. Hopewell was Professor of Religion and the Church and Director of the Rollins Center for Church Ministries at the Candler School of theology, Emory University. This article appeared in the Christian Century June 2, 1982, p. 663. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Since 1960, more than 100 books on the endangered congregation have been published in this country. These books, like game wardens guarding vanishing species of animals, seek to save the churches they see lumbering toward extinction. Powerful stories are told about churches struggling through crisis toward an ultimate cure.

Throughout the 1960s, a “ghost” motif shaped the more popular studies of the parish. During the ‘70s, the ghost image gave way to the concept of the church as “monster.” Ghosts are different from monsters, and the prevalence of one image over the other at different times says much about the two decades.

Each image presents a quite different understanding of the world. Ghost stories are animistic, while monster stories are mechanistic. In ghost stories the body soon wastes away, freeing the anima -- the soul -- to power the narrative. In monster stories the body, not some disembodied spirit, provides the force. When the body is destroyed, the monster dies as well. If the monster is to be resuscitated, as in Hollywood sequels, the body has to be found and revived. Both ghost and monster convey the drama of life, but each carries it in a different direction.

In the ghost-oriented 1960s the local church was generally seen as an inert body which actually inhibited the expression of Christian life. The opening lines of a report for the 1968 Assembly of the World Council of Churches capture something of the exasperation of many then concerned about congregations: “How can we build a church which will not stand in its own way, whose organizational structures are not forever contradicting what it says on the mystery of the church, whose budget does not make a mockery of what the church teaches?” Studies of the ‘60s generally asserted that the present body of the congregation must die in order that the true church might live. The ancient gnosis that the body is a tomb -- soma sema -- therein received a new interpretation: the soul of the church is imprisoned in the congregational body.

A critical contribution to this outlook was The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, written by Gibson Winter in 1961. To Winter, the American Christian community was imprisoned in enclaves of suburban congregations bound by middle-class, not Christian, values. In the same year Peter Berger flayed the congregations in The Noise of Solemn Assemblies. While foreseeing that future parishes might serve as caretakers for the less venturesome of members, Berger felt that vital Christian engagement with the world would instead occur in “supraparochial” contexts. What happens to the local church body thus discredited is seen throughout the World Council of Churches’ “Studies on the Missionary Structure of the Congregation.” In these studies, the traditional form of the congregation fades away, virtually ignored. Persons content with the traditional form were accused of the jawbreaking sin of “morphological fundamentalism.” To escape the structure, the church had better turn itself inside out: a phrase used to title Hans Hoekendijk’s 1966 book on this topic.

If the congregation as spirit were to leave behind the body what would it become? The studies of the ‘60s argued that its life should be defined in terms of what it inhabited, rather than in terms of what form it took. To “inhabit,” as ghost story buffs know, means to haunt. The faithfulness of the disembodied congregation requires it to inhabit, or to haunt, the secular structures of the world. Called to participate in God’s mission to all creation, the congregation is to escape its own body and to attend the other forms of human society. The most widely circulated documents concerning this missionary structure of the congregation were Colin Williams’s Where in the World? and What in the World? Designed as study books, these works led both laity and clergy into the plot of a church that sought to inhabit worldly structures.

Some studies refer to the manner in which the church might enter the economic and political structures of the times, but the primary locus of mission in these works was the urban community. Unlike the books of earlier decades that treated an urban context as at most, an environment outside the church walls, the ‘60s literature perceived urban society as the pervasive ethos of the congregation itself, providing its nurture and ordering its structure. As disembodied spirit the church “haunts” the houses of the city, in the spiritist sense of haunting: to link and help people in crisis.

Neither ghost nor church, however, becomes totally identified with the context it is haunting. While inhabiting the world the congregation does not lose its identity. Robert Spike’s In But Not of the World was an early recognition of this transience, but George Webber’s God’s Colony in Man’s World was a more thoroughgoing analysis of how a congregation converted to the world nevertheless remains distinct from it. The phenomenologist van der Leeuw describes this peculiar status of the disembodied soul: “The departed is still l’homme mort, but he is at the same time the ‘other,’ the stranger.” Later on in the ‘60s Gerald Jud represented this transience in his Pilgrim’s Process: How the Local Church Can Respond to the New Age. And George Webber, defying the different metaphor that dominated writing about congregations in the 1970s, has recently written Today’s Church: A Community of Exiles and Pilgrims, which advances even more radically than his earlier books the concept of disembodied transience.

A major shift in image -- from ghost to monster -- occurred in the years around 1970. Why this happened at that time is a complex and somewhat tangential subject, but several factors can be mentioned briefly. In part the shift reflected the growing difficulty of national church bodies in sustaining agencies and studies whose arguments portrayed the dismantling of the very local church whose contributions maintained these national offices. The authors of such studies, convinced of the need for radical transformation, had at the same time become increasingly frustrated and reluctant to invest further energy in a church that responded in remarkably few instances with basic and sustained change in parish structure.

It grew evident, moreover, that those denominations which in the 1960s supported the ghost-story argument were losing both membership and financial support, while less ecumenically inclined bodies were growing in members and financial strength. For these and other reasons, ghostly literature about congregations virtually ceased as the ‘70s began. Only hardy unregenerates like George Webber today remind the church of a mission in which its body dies.

In the narcissistic climate of the 1970s the local body of the church was restored to full life and prominence. The health of the parish was an essential concern of books that began to appear. No longer was congregational structure viewed as something that must be sacrificed to enable the mission of the church. This structure was seen as the very vehicle by which that mission may be carried out. “Some enthusiasts,” reports C. Peter Wagner (who serves as a sort of doctor for ailing congregations), “feel that with church growth insights we may even step as far ahead in God’s task of world evangelization as medicine did when aseptic surgery was in-troduced.” Whereas the parish literature of the ‘60s located the saving activity of God primarily in the world at large, and required the congregation to respond with organizational imprudence, the books of the ‘70s found God’s salvation manifested first in the lives of individuals, and required that congregations be groomed with “consecrated pragmatism” to become organizations fit to incorporate these lives.

In this shift of images, the monster story replaces the ghost story. We tend to think of monster stories as the perishable schlock that runs in third-rate movie houses, but the monster myth is in fact a more basic, abiding part of Western culture. The Frankenstein story, for example, is now more than 160 years old, and it in turn drew on medieval and even more ancient tales. The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, signifying its tie to a Roman version of the Prometheus myth which portrayed the Titan as stealing not only fire from heaven but also life itself. The monster is a classic metaphor for virulent life that has been given a material body.

In the monster story, a body is recovered or discovered. This body is then brought to life by scientific techniques; and the body has uncommon size or proportions. Finally, the monster may become an unexpected menace. These features seem to characterize both monsters and the image of the local church in the ‘70s.

Whereas earlier studies view the body as the grave (soma sema), ‘70s books instead disclose the body in a grave, consigned for disinterment. That which is unearthed is the physical, material organization of the congregation.

“Bury The Parish?” was the title Browne Barr gave a 1967 Christian Century article, revealing a fresh understanding of the local church that neither killed it off nor permitted its former irrelevance. A second hint of change in metaphor occurs in a critique of the ghost literature, Can These Bones Live?, published by Robert Lecky and Elliott Wright in 1969. Thereafter the question mark disappeared from the titles of works regarding the parish body; speculation gave way to sure discovery, and a decade after Gibson Winter’s entombment of the suburban church, books such as Christ’s Suburban Body by Wilfred M. Bailey and William K. McElvaney and Robert Hudnut’s The Sleeping Giant called for the recovery of potency in the resources of present church structures.

“After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue,” says Dr. Frankenstein, “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” After recovering what had been left for dead, the doctors of the parish sought to give it new life. C. Peter Wagner cites their qualifications for this difficult task:

. . . for some reason or other, a scientific approach has not been used widely among Christians for understanding God’s work in the world with more precision. But church growth tends to do just that.

As a matter of curiosity, none of the members of the faculty of the Fuller School of World Mission -- where church growth theory has been generated to date -- has his doctorate in theology or philosophy as such. Rather, faculty members combine such academic fields as civil engineering, education, social ethics, linguistics, agriculture, and anthropology, where scientific methodology is a prominent part of the training [Your Church Can Grow].

Using “scientific” methods, the doctors of the parish bring new life to that body. Among their more suggestive titles published between 1969 and 1976:

To Come Alive; Your Parish Comes Alive; Ways to Wake Up Your Church; Arousing the Steeping Giant; Your Church Has Real Possibilities, and A Process of Local Church Vitalization. The most Frankensteinian title of them all is James Glasse’s Putting It Together in the Parish.

These works on vitalization generally prescribe the organizational analysis of the parish and the development of planning processes by which that body gains new life. Through the use of behavioral sciences and organizational development, the congregational body is probed and prodded. Its power is traced and mobilized; its organs analyzed and activated; its members recognized and energized. All of these techniques presume the immanent vitality of parish structure and the likelihood of life if the proper techniques are employed. “The principles of success are all here!” proclaimed the cover of one of the most widely purchased of books on local church vitalization.

Monsters are larger than life. Their myth discloses not only the resuscitation of the body, but also its enlargement. Frankenstein’s monster is eight feet tall, supposedly to permit its creator greater ease in linking parts, but also to heighten its numinous nature. That which is revived must also grow, if it partakes of ultimate power. To deny growth of the body is to deny that power:

Back in the 1960s, most of us remember all too well, many had even begun to question whether the church should grow. . . . For a while it became fashionable in certain circles to proclaim that we now live in a “post-Christian age. Some overhang from the 1960s still persists like a pesky cough after a head cold. But by and large, church growth has edged up toward the top of the agenda in churches across the board [C. Peter Wagner, ibid.].

The dominant theme of congregational inquiry in the ‘70s was church growth. More books on that topic have been published than on any other. A recent survey of persons who study the congregation professionally found more whose research involved church growth than any other subject. Though there are no statistics on conferences and consultations held throughout the decade, observers note that the issue of growth was one of the most popular topics for such gatherings.

The type of growth proposed by the fountainhead of the movement, the Institute for Church Growth, is not to be undertaken to the detriment of other aspects of Christian life and witness. In fulfilling these aspects, however, the movement asserts the necessity of aggressive enlargement of congregational units. Anything less than doubling parish size in ten years is given faint praise. At a time when the average American congregation carries a dubious list of 400 names as members, and gathers only 75 worshipers on Sunday, church growth literature provides as templates the case histories of churches which each contain several thousand souls. Like monsters, churches need to be “big enough” for their parts to work. “A growing church is big enough,” says Wagner, “when it is effectively winning lost people to Christ, when it provides the range of services that meet the needs of its members, and when it is reproducing itself by planting new churches.”

To gain gigantic stature the body needs compatible tissue. Some growth advocates stress the importance of homogeneity in church membership if that body is to develop. In their observations the attempt to integrate persons of different classes and cultures works against growth in the long run. “Typically during the period the congregation is integrated the general health of the institution is not the best,” says Wagner. Heterogeneity in a congregation, he notes, is not a higher moral undertaking; it is rather a deterrent to the development of theology and ethical behavior made clear by a common cultural idiom [Our Kind of People].

After its monster is given life, the narrative of Frankenstein shifts from one told by his scientist creator to that told by the monster itself. In the latter story we learn for the first time that the monster has emotions and intelligence. But, repulsed by its strange appearance, people flee, frightened and defensive. Instead of benefiting the world, the monster becomes its menace. It turns on its creator, its contemporaries and itself.

Like the Frankenstein story, late 70s literature fastens upon differences and resulting conflict. Conflict among Christians was not an unexamined subject in the 1960s, but it more often described the generalized tension among Christians of different theological and social persuasions. Only in the ‘70s was the issue localized in “church fights” involving contention in specific congregations. The latter books analyze the patterns of controversy that develop between a pastor and people, or among parties within a parish. Polarities within a local church are regarded as inevitable, and ultimately destructive, but also, if recognized in time, as points of creative entry into a deeper understanding of the nature of common life and discipleship. If these tensions, however, are not addressed, the congregation, like the monster, becomes more demonic, insensitive both to human need and divine blessing.

In a decade that pictured the local church as a physical body, it is not surprising that some books used metaphors of body disease and medical treatment. In 1976, Browne Barr issued his Well Church Book, a series of essays on the parish designed to give it “new heart, new being.” C. Peter Wagner, moreover, provided a full diagnostic tool for the body in Your Church Can Be Healthy, which identifies eight different diseases of local churches. As monster the congregation needed formulas to bring it to life; next it needed antidotes to remedy its inherent evil.

The symbols that surround the local church are far more complex than our Christian iconography suggests. Images such as ghosts and monsters accompany our more official symbols. Mythic patterns, moreover, are strikingly evident in the analysis of what pastors call the “personality” of their parishes. Each local church also has an identifiable worldview that is informed by a particular genre of world literature. In our monotheistic outlook we Christians overlook the power of sacred figures other than our own in congregational culture. When a congregation is spirited, for example, we assume that spirit to be Christ’s and do not consider it may be some other conjuring. To be the Body of Christ means in part that the church is incarnated in the symbolic tissue of all humanity. What Christians need to determine is whether the name of Christ is merely a baptizing of the images they incorporate in their church bodies, or whether Christ effects through these bodies not just a sign, but a love for all humanity.


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