Yesterday, someone shared a Tweet that made me laugh. It was a Google search screen where the user had entered “how do I convert to”. I tried the same search on Bing, and found out that the Google result was not the fourth most popular thing to convert to, but the second.
So, now we know where all the people who are leaving the churches are going. They are converting to pdf.
Tongue in cheek, perhaps. But I wonder if it is not emblematic of something deeper.
In the 24 hours preceding the tweet, I got tangled up in a “discussion” with a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook (said friend-of-friend turning out to be someone in my high school graduation class, but of whom I have absolutely no memory). At any rate, there was some very angry conservative Christian rhetoric, finishing with “anyone who knows Jesus Christ feels the same way.”
It doesn’t matter what the discussion was about. When someone plays the “all Christians feel this way” card, I can’t help but challenge them. Which I did. And despite the gentleman’s repeated “I respectfully disagree” to whatever I said (granted, I got a little less than ladylike), and countering with conservative “Christian” but un-biblical rhetoric about how the United States was founded on deeply Christian roots, and how things had changed but not for the better, and more of the “all Christians agree”, there was no respect.
Because, when you insist all people must agree or they’re “out” of the group (and you set the standard for that which must be agreed upon), respect is no longer possible.
I looked at the gentleman’s profile, and saw he is both a graduate and current student of the Newburgh Theological Seminary. I will set aside for the moment the low-commitment nature of online ministry study, or the questionable academic accrediting body which validates the institution’s programs.
I prefer to focus on the doctrinal statement. The doctrinal statement treaats Christian faith as an unalterable original. And as conveyances of Christian faith, the Newburgh doctrinal statement requires each individual Christian to be nothing more than a flesh-and-blood pdf.
The pdf–portable document file–has its merits. It makes sure the recipient has an exact copy of what the originator intended. It preserves historical documents as they first appeared.
But once the pdf is created, the recipient cannot make significant alterations, cannot add anything of him/herself to it. The document is inherently unresponsive to any context into which it may be transported, which limits its use when conditions change. Collaboration becomes difficult, because the originator of the document controls what can be added, subtracted, or altered.
(I had a colleague once with whom I was supposed to collaborate on a large, important document that was time-critical. He always sent me his changes in pdf, so I could not change them, and insisted I send him a separate sheet which he would use to edit “his” original–and of course, my changes never made it into what had to be submitted. Until the reviewing body of our work insisted certain changes be made. Oddly, they were mostly what I had suggested.)
When someone “converts” to the kind of Christianity embodied in the Newburgh doctrinal statement, s/he promises to become a pdf. Not a living, thinking Christian who will be changed by contexts and contact with others. Not a person who can learn from other viewpoints, from Christians who might not “feel the same”, or from people who aren’t Christian.
It makes a person unresponsive to new situations, needs, and ideas. It makes collaboration difficult on the best days. It turns Christianity into nothing but an unchangeable historical document.
It gives living, breathing, contextually responsive Christianity a bad name.
But being a pdf Christian is easier. Because you know you’re what the Author intended. You know you haven’t been changed.
So, we wonder where the drain on the churches–especially the mainline liberal Protestant churches–is going. Possibly, some is to the “dones”. But there’s a likelihood that any shuffling within Christianity is turning people from being living, breathing, contextually responsive Christians into pdf Christians.
And it’s time to call that one out. It may not show in the overall numbers within Christianity. It may not even make a significant change in the attendance or giving of a particular denomination or congregation. But once we insist on a particular way “anyone who knows Jesus Christ” will think, feel, or act, we are sliding into pdf Christianity.
The early 20th century Anglican social theologians insisted faith should be an adventure; they encouraged Christians to challenge what they had been taught and test church teaching against their own experience, and see how it measured up. PDF Christianity is anything but adventure, anything but challenge. It’s the exact kind of cozy, self-satisfied religion Jesus preached against.
It’s what a lot of people want–and possibly expect–from church. Courageous church leaders, lay and ordained, in the 21st century, need to say, “sorry, that’s not what we have on offer here.”
And as long as we’re invested in things like numerical and financial growth, and see those as markers of “congregational development”, we will mainly see a rise in pdf style Christianity.