Yes, your church does need an inward focus. It just shouldn’t be you doing the focusing.

Because of some of the groups I belong to on social media, I come across all kinds of things about church health/growth/decline.  One which provoked me quite a bit over the last week or so was  this one.  Although there is much to agree with here, it also (probably because it is written by a church professional, for other church professionals), misses something very important.

You do need to have an inward-looking vision.  But it needs to come from people outside your church.

About five years ago, I contributed an essay on ‘outsider ecclesiology’ to a far-too expensive book of essays on Reinhold Niebuhr. Although no ecclesiastical outsider himself, Niebuhr showed what I thought was an exquisite sensitivity to those who deliberately were not part of churches–why they rejected institutionalized Christianity, and how Christian discourse could still be used to engage (not necessarily ‘convert’) those who stand extra ecclesia.

It’s been a commonplace to say that Niebuhr had ‘no ecclesiology’–and indeed, he was rather inarticulate about what ‘church’ meant to him.  I argued that if you look at his ecclesiology carefully, the functions he assigns to the church are not supported by the church’s ontology:  being does not support doing.

But, it is possible to tease out two things about the church which Niebuhr conflates–the historic institution and the aggregate of currently living believers–which create the impression of Christianity which can either attract or repel those who are not members of a Christian community. In the essay,  I’ve summarized it as follows:

The great contribution of this ‘outsider ecclesiology’ is that it points to the failures of the historic and concrete church that render it unattractive to those who refuse its teaching and ministry.  There are two primary difficulties, and although each is more associated with one aspect of the church (the institution or the aggregate of believers), they are not mutually exclusive.  The first of these failures is more associated with the institutional church, and that is the failure of arrogance.  The second is the failure of foolishness, which is more an attribute of the as the aggregate of individual Christians in their unofficial representation of the church in their social, economic, and political interactions.

There needs to be more attention paid by churches to the real needs expressed by those outside the institution, and less to looking out and telling people that they need what the church has to give (which they may need, or not).  The important thing is that the churches need to view themselves as ‘outsiders’ do.

It won’t be easy to do, and it may not be pleasant to know what the results are.  But it really is, I think, key to the future of mainstream Christianity–and as dissatisfied as I am, I would like mainstream Christianity to have a future.

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6 thoughts on “Yes, your church does need an inward focus. It just shouldn’t be you doing the focusing.

  1. I am really enjoying your posts. I have to admit that I have never been someone who has felt comfortable inside of a church. I am not a non-believer, I am just someone who does not thrive as part of a larger group. I prefer very small groups of trusted friends and family. I do not seek counsel from anyone that I don’t know well and who I do not trust. Although I have to admit that after reading your posts I wonder if the problem is not me at all, but the institutions themselves. I think most of us are raised to believe that the church is a community that knows what is best for us and that the clergy is meant to be like a parent. Perhaps I have just never subscribed to this even at such a young age and perhaps that is why I have always felt uncomfortable. I am not sure. I am not sure my comments are even relevant, but your posts are giving me lots of food for thought- and I appreciate that.

    1. Thanks, Stacy–I’m glad youre finding something good here. I think what you ae desribing/experiencing is perhaps part of a wider thing going on in society. People are relating differently to social institutions of all kinds (churches, educational institutions, government, the medical profession) in a different, more probing and sceptical way than they have in much of human history. And the churches seem to be the last to adapt. Which is detrimental to their survival.

  2. I should also say that, for a couple of years, I was a ‘professional outsider’ to churches, as an observer-participant researcher. It can be both corrective and encouraging to have someone come in, without a clerical collar, with no expectation that s/he will take any liturgical or pastoral responsibilities, sit in the back, and tell you what your church looks like, and how it functions in its context.

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