How to Be Church in a Culture of Narcissism?

Photo by Jan Lee

Photo by Jan Lee

This week I’m taking a DMin course at McCormick Theological Seminary called “Why Church Matters in a Culture of Narcissism,” taught by Lillian Daniel. This is a class that I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while. It’s the kind of class on contemporary Christianity that I think is really important for a DMin program.

Based on the thread that connects the narrative vignettes and essays of her book, When “Spiritual But Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God is Surprising Spaces, Even the Church, I anticipate that Lillian will be more optimistic about the vitality (and perhaps necessity) of traditional church in our post-Christendom context than I typically am.

She signaled this a bit in class today with a short lecture on the differences between the “Yale School” of post-liberal narrative theology and the “Chicago School” of correlational theology. She describes the Yale approach as invitational and the Chicago approach as translational. Her implication, I think, is that the Yale approach is a better response to post-Christendom than the Chicago approach, though she acknowledges that most of us operate with a bit of both.

Trained at the University of Chicago, whereas Lillian was trained at Yale, I tend to think that the opposite is true. While my Baptist past and longtime passion for the Bible make the narrative theology of the Yale School attractive, the cumulative effect of my college education in the critical study of religion, my biblical and theological training at a divinity school deeply influenced by Tillich, and my general approach to post-Christendom position me squarely in the Chicago camp.

Maybe I’m influenced by some degree of resignation, but twelve years of professional youth ministry with young people raised in decidedly post-Christendom contexts has convinced me that it is highly unlikely that mainline Protestants will reclaim any sense of the cultural centrality that the church enjoyed in Christendom, at least within my lifetime. And instead of fighting a battle we are unlikely to win, my instincts tell me that a better approach is to adapt the gospel to language and practices with which young people are already familiar rather than struggle to teach them a language that is growing increasingly unfamiliar, a language that is no longer reinforced outside of Sunday morning church gatherings. The correlational model seems to me to provide a better invitation to conversation than an approach that essentially requires post-Christendom natives to first learn the language of Christianity before they can understand what we are talking about.

Rather than defend church as we’ve known it, I tend to think that what we need most is a radical rethinking of church for our new post-Christendom realities.

I’m looking forward to being challenged and stretched in this course.

Comments

  1. Dennis Maher says:

    I’m with you. Now if these Yalies would get about the task of re-telling the historically inaccurate and destructive Biblical narratives, we might get somewhere. We need new narratives that include wisdom from all world religions and take account of the directions of scientific trajectories.

  2. Glyndon Morris says:

    You might check out the book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, by Thomas E. Bergler, It discusses the changes to the conversational discourse within the Church since the early 20th century and the (d)evolution of that discourse to a level conducive to juveniles instead of full adults. The author looks at the UMC, the Southern Baptists, the Black Church, and the Catholics for historical examples. I think it might enlighten the discussion of “adapt(ing) the gospel to language and practices with which young people are already familiar.”

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