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The Christian Church: Engaging the Future

by David Prescott

David Prescott is Executive Vice President of Gund Investment Corporation in Princeton, NJ. He is on the board of directors of the Institute for Servant Leadership and is President of Soul in the Workplace, a non-profit educational corporation that facilitates workshops on the integration of personal faith and life in the workplace. He can be reached at (609) 921-6453 or by e-mail at DPPres@aol.com. This article appears as a resource on The Center for Progressive Christianity web site, copyright 2001 and used by permission. Additional resources and information about The Center may be found at http://www.tcpc.org/..


I believe the Church stands at a critical time in its life. The world is in the throes of incredible, fundamental changes. Cultural diversity is growing in some places; attempts to maintain ethnic purity lead to battles in others. Economies are more and more interdependent and undergoing massive dislocation. Witness the transitions to market economies in Russia and Eastern Europe, for example, as well as the rapid development of technology in the United States and the enormous impact of corporate downsizing and restructuring. Democratization is spreading around the world. Social changes continue a rapid rate, both at home and abroad. And there is a new emphasis on the discovery of a relevant and sustainable spirituality. How will the church engage this changing world?

Can the hierarchical structures of power and authority adapt to new models of organizational structure and governance? Will religious and liturgical language evolve into new forms in keeping with new understandings and world views? Will the Church, especially the Church in the United States, be able to articulate a cogent vision of a humane global society based on Christian notions of peace and justice? Or will it become a bastion of unexamined tradition?

The world is indeed experiencing a global transformation of consciousness, a sea change in thinking, individually and collectively. In my view, there are at least six key factors which have caused and continue to affect a global transformation of consciousness: the revolution in communications, globalization of the economy, a growing awareness of the degradation of the environment, demographic shifts, the threat of nuclear destruction and the advent of the new science.

Consider the following phenomena:

1) Telephone, FAX and e-mail around the world are commonplace. And who can forget watching the Gulf War on prime time in 1991? An executive in Phoenix runs a company in Akron by use of his laptop and FAX machine. Numerous workers do not even report to an office today.

2) Whole industries have moved to places where wages are lower and labor laws and environmental standards less stringent than they are in the United States. Capital moves around the world for the most advantageous investment yields, virtually instantaneously. A financial crisis in Southeast Asia affects the economy in the United States.

3) Environmental degradation is no longer a local matter, but a global issue. Political borders do not make any difference. Acid rain from factories in Canada or the Midwest pollute lakes in upstate New York. Nuclear waste from Chernobyl fell in Finland. Do you recall the pictures of grimy soot-covered cities in Eastern Europe just after the Berlin wall came down? And cancer is a major disease in industrialized areas like New Jersey.

4) Population growth in the last 100 years has been astounding. More people are alive today than have lived and died since the world began. Over half of the 5.8 billion people on earth are under 20 years old. Most live in undeveloped or developing nations, especially in South America, the Indian subcontinent, China and the Far East. They have scant resources. By contrast, the United States has about 6% of the world's population and consumes 40% of its output. And, according to a recent study, in 30 years more than three quarters of the elderly, but barely half of the children in America, will be white.

5) The destructive power of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has penetrated the world's consciousness. Pictures of the planet, taken from outer space, have impressed indelibly in our collective psyche, just how beautiful the earth is and how much we depend on her abundance. Pictures of exploding H-bombs remind us of how fragile our life together can be. And we are all frightened at the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists against innocent civilian populations.

6) The impact of scientific work over the past 50 years is having an incredible effect on our thinking. The Newtonian model of a mechanical universe which most of us grew up with has given way to a quantum model. We believed in order and predictability. Chaos has replaced order; predictability has yielded to randomness. We know now that the universe is expanding and that all of its parts are ever changing, evolving, pulsating with energy, dynamic and rich with possibility. Every thing is in relation to another: the observer to the observed, the earth to the sun, the proton to the neutron, and relationships are changing every moment. Static is an illusion.

One cannot underestimate the impact of this change in thinking. In the mechanical view of the world, people are viewed as essentially interchangeable parts. What we know now to be true is that no two people will do the same task in the same way or meet the same standards of performance. Beyond that, the universe celebrates diversity and lives in repetitive processes of dissipation and renewal.

This new consciousness has begun to shape an emerging yet coherent view of an interconnected world, where humans are inextricably linked to one another, whether we like it or not, and where all are connected to and dependent on the natural world in which we all live.

I want the Church to have a voice in shaping the emerging world consciousness and I suggest that the Church needs to change in several ways in order for it to be a vital force in influencing the shape of the future. One is that the Church needs to see and engage the world based on its radical roots in God's revelation, but informed by current views of the nature of reality. To do so, both clergy and lay members must look beyond parochial institutional concerns and deliberately develop a broader view of the world and the role of the Church as a transforming agent.

I also believe that the hierarchical structure of governance needs to be reformed into a more democratic one. Sacramental and governing authority traditionally vested in the clergy needs to be shared in a more profound way with members who are more than simply clergy helpers. Ministry is a common endeavor and a joint responsibility. Finally, the language of worship needs to incorporate more modern images relevant to a large population of unchurched younger people who do not have world views like our own.

These steps are intertwined and cannot be neatly separated. I do not believe the Church can pick and choose. In other words, the Church cannot change its world view, but cling to its hierarchical structure. It cannot become more democratic without dealing with clergy authority. And it cannot retain its ancient language and images and still claim a modern world view. Words, symbols, and images too often become locked in and lose their power to convey meaning in a fast changing world. Creativity, passion and purpose get buried under outdated language.

It is within the context of Jesus' giving himself up to death that we see God's power to transform in resurrection. Jesus willingly sacrificed himself in obedience to a power greater than himself. His authority came from a deep centeredness. Jesus portrayed in his life and death a notion of power and authority different from that of the world. Thus, as Christians, we understand power and authority differently from that of much of the Western world. Yet, our own corporate life incorporates traditional notions of these concepts.

My own Episcopal church, like many mainline churches, is a top down organization at the local level, headed by a bishop. At the parish level, authority and power is vested in the rector or senior pastor. Thus, in many situations one person is the first and final arbiter of parish activity. And, congregations generally support this view. This structure, in my view, fails to acknowledge our deep interconnectedness as members of the church and simply affirms the notion of a hierarchical structure and the expectations that go along with it.

This structure itself is simply inconsistent with democratic concepts spreading around the world today as well as enlightened management practices, to say nothing of the role and responsibilities of the lay membership as the "priesthood of all believers." Beyond that, it frequently leads to clergy burnout and a mutually reinforcing dysfunctional co-dependency between priest and parishioners. We need to think about new models of organization which are not so bishop or rector centered and which support and enhance the clergy role as spiritual leaders within the Church and which call all the members to a new sense of discipleship.

Beyond structure, is the issue of personnel. The church clergy is dominated by heterosexual married white men. There are few women in significant leadership roles and few openly gay people. A Church which does not celebrate and support its own diversity cannot carry a relevant message in a world of diversity. How can justice be preached and not done at home?

Much of the language used in worship reflects the mind set of the past. For example, the Nicene Creed uses 4th century images of heaven above and earth below. These images are not pertinent to a generation which knows that above the earth is a vast expanse of space with planets and stars and into which we shoot space shuttles and communications satellites. In a time of renewed feminism, one parent families, and absent fathers, references to God as "Father" often convey little meaning. Beyond that, the rote repetition of old formulations in worship somehow denigrates the relevance of the truth it seeks to convey.

Hymns with words of war and battle images counter concepts of nonviolence. References to "mankind" or "to us and to all men" rather than to "human kind" or "all people" deride those who feel that they have been ignored too long in a male dominated society. My children, both daughters, one in her twenties and the other in her late teens, will not enter a church for worship because they cannot see the relevance of the liturgical language to their everyday lives.

Language is a living and evolving thing and in today's world; it changes fast. New vocabularies are used to convey meaning in a world where invention is common. Computer technology and the Internet have created thousands of new words: gigabytes, and RAM and cyberspace and ISP's to name a few. And they have given new meanings to some old words. Who would have thought that a "mouse" was not a rodent!

New understandings of our world require modern words to convey those understandings. Stagnant language is dead because it describes something which no one sees anymore. For instance, how many of you know the word "antimacassar?" It describes the cloth cover placed on the back and top of an easy chair to absorb the hair oil used by men and sold under the name "Macassar Oil." It is no longer used. The word describes a reality which no longer exists in the modern world. I believe that an institution which articulates the basis of its life with dead language is an institution without vitality. By sticking to outmoded language and ancient images, the Church becomes a club for those who speak the language.

Vaclav Havel observed:

"Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble."

According to Havel "Only a new spiritual vision - cosmic in its dimensions and global in scope - can rescue civilization."

The late Willis Harmon, former President of the Institute of Noetic Science and a founder of the World Business Academy, a network of business people who believe that business has a positive role to play in reshaping the world, put it this way: there is "a growing awareness that the present global system doesn't work. It doesn't work for large numbers of marginalized people in the so called 'developing' countries, nor for the homeless in the 'developed' countries, nor for the environment, nor for the earth itself. It doesn't work for future generations; it is not sustainable in the long run." This pessimistic view is echoed by many, but does not necessarily have to come to pass. I see it as a challenge for renewal.

We are called to live our faith in the day to day world. Jesus was a transformer of people and institutions. We need to be the same. We are not merely a social club with many beneficial activities. The Church's eyes must be open to injustice and poverty, to hunger and deprivation around the world. We must do more than simply acknowledge the growing gap between the rich and the poor at home and abroad.

We must inquire in depth about what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century in America, the richest nation on earth and how our behavior should be amended to reflect our answers. We must examine critically how the teachings of Jesus and the prophets are relevant to us today and what steps we might take to make those teachings more a conscious part of our lives. We must enrich our own faith understanding by engaging with others of different faiths and religious backgrounds in an atmosphere of mutual learning and respect.

We must determine and discharge the specific responsibilities we have as individuals and as a community of believers to be at work in the local community and the world beyond. And we must think about how we use our individual and collective financial resources in the work of transforming our world. The Church needs to live into the sea changes around it with a new consciousness. It can start with its own reforms of structure and language.

As Christians, we believe in a living and immanent God who is the ground of all being; who created and continues to create, sustain and redeem all of life. As created beings, we and all humans are called to the work of co-creation with God in an ongoing generative and redemptive process. Through the Christ, humanity catches a glimpse of the compassion and love of God for the world. The ultimate job and purpose of the Church must be to equip its members to be co-creators with this ongoing Generative and Redemptive Power of the Universe seeking to transform the world into a place of peace, justice and compassion--a world sustainable for all of its inhabitants. The Church has been an important part of my life and faith journey. It is a place where I have found many friends and sojourners. At its best it can be vibrant and stimulating and prophetic. I want the Church to be at its best as we enter the 21st century.


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