A Stage 3 Church in a Stage 4 World (First of Probably Many)

Yesterday, I promised/threatened to refer to Fowler’s six faith stages on occasion, and today I am making good on that.

In a response to one of my reflections yesterday, a friend wrote the following:

 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.

This sense of not thriving in a larger group, and not accepting counsel (or perhaps, authority) from persons just because of their position in a religious institution, is probably more common–and on the rise–than my friend imagines.  My sense is that the increase of people who consider themelves to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ (or who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated in whatever way), would resonate with tese objections.

Her objections to and discomfort with a church (or other spiritual community) where the ordained leadership take the role of ‘parent’, are probably typical of Fowler’s fourth stage, an integrative faith (religious or not) where authority is examined fairly closely, where the inquirer does not seek answers from a single source (whether that of an individual person, or a corporate entity such as a religious institution), and where a broader range of learning and experience is brought to bear on the individual’s outlook.

Increasingly, however, I note that existing clergy, whether they are of the ’emerging’ church or ‘persisting’ church variety, are mired in the old-thinky way of Stage 3 expectations: that their congregants will accept their authority on the basis of their clerical collars, and seek their advice and approval. A lay person, even a theologically well-educated one (possibly, in my case, better educated than the cleric), must not challenge, question, contradict, or form his/her own opinion.

More worrisome, we are still training ordained leaders to expect to be on the receiving end of unearned respect for their ordained status–whether or not they are particularly learned. I repeatedly run into one recently (within the last two year) ordained Church of England priest, a graduate of one of the most prestigious training institutions in the Anglican Comsmunion, who cannot give decent theological justification for his pronouncements. And if challenged, he retreats into complaints about being ‘bullied’, rather than engaging the questions–or (what would gain my respect more quickly), admitting that perhaps he doesn’t have all the answers.

A few years ago, a slightly more experienced priest who I knew from Facebook entered into a new ministry in the town where I live. As we went back and forth about face-to-face meetings, and I explained some of my disillusionment with the church, she said she could offer me spiritual direction. It was meant kindly, I’m sure–but it felt invasive. It was an institutionally appropriate offer, but it was not appropriate for me. Someone I have not met before, no matter his/her ordained status, is not in a position to put him/herself in that relationship with me. I make the approach, not the priest.

Continuing to train ordinands for a Stage 3 church is foolish. The church claims it wishes to reach all people, that it has something of value for all people. But it is not going to reach an increasing portion of the population if it continues down the path it is on.

Our society is increasingly Stage 4, and has been for pretty much my entire +50 years. How we engage all authority and institutions is much more critical, and demands much more reciprocity, than the way it did in my parents’ era. And simply complaining about social change, rather than engaging it, will be the death of the church.


6 thoughts on “A Stage 3 Church in a Stage 4 World (First of Probably Many)

  1. I am glad to hear that I am not alone in my thoughts. I was doing some research the other day on generations as they pertain to employees and how workers of three different and very diverse generations can work together better and I realized that my own generation (Generation X) is characterized by distrust of authority. I didn’t quite realize that, but Gen Xers (as opposed to baby boomers) do not buy into certain social norms, gender roles, etc. I suppose this would make sense as to how one views church and clergy as well. I just don’t think anyone can demand respect because of a job title. This can be a CEO or a parish priest or minister. No matter who you are in the world, you have to earn respect and trust. I think one of the things that has made Pope Francis really stand out in his role is his desire to reach out to earn respect from others. It would just be so simple to say “well I am the Pope you should respect me ” instead he lives modestly (Jesuits do take a vow of poverty) and he does a number of tasks himself. I don’t recall any other Popes being quite so humble in their daily lives.

    1. I was born at the tail end of the ‘baby boomers’/early ‘GenX’, and probably because of a religiously mixed/confused upbringing (combined with being the only intentionally lay vocation student at an Episcopal seminary), I just don’t respect the collar for its own sake, or as much as some people would like. We’re now a society where we don’t accept what a doctor says if it sounds wrong to us (I’ve fired doctors), we challenge our university professors–there is no good reason we should accept what the clergy say or want without question if it sits badly. And we should rise up in protest against simplistic and silly answers to deep questions.

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