Nadia Bolz-Weber graces Omaha with her presence

(and I don’t mean that in an ironic hipster sense)

My thanks goes out to The Center for Faith Studies at Countryside Community Church for bringing Nadia Bolz-Weber to town on Thursday, Feb. 27.  You can watch a video of her talk at the Center’s website.  

Two highlights of the evening-- 1.  Nadia responding to a teenager who is being bullied and was ready to give up.  Nadia gives encouragement without sugar-coating (reminiscent of the "It gets better” campaign), and the girl’s face lit up.  2.  To a young woman who was finding sermon-writing difficult, Nadia compares her sermon writing process to Jacob wrestling with the angel.  Nadia brings herself and her community to the text, wrestles with the sacred, demands a blessing, and always walks away limping.

Nadia opened up the talk with a quick summary of a branch of cultural criticism that she has found to be a helpful tool for understanding the demise a mainline Christianity.  She contrasted Authority and Experience, as in Mainline Christianity is associated with Authority and younger generations are rejecting Authority when it differs from their Experience.  She uses the Enlightenment as an example of what she means by Authority when in fact she could point to the Enlightenment as yet another example of Experience overthrowing Authority.  

The Authority in that case was institutionalized Aristotelian natural philosophy, and the Experience was that of men who were inspired by Aristotle’s actual example of going out into nature, making observations, and recording those observations.  The enlightenment experimenters did not want to learn about nature by reading about it in books; they wanted to experience it directly.  They had tools that had not been available to Aristotle, and they took their fancy new lenses and trained them on the moon and planets and butterflies.  After reporting on how their observations expanded on or contradicted the received tradition, others were motivated to repeat those experiments and report back on the ways in which their experience coincided and differed with the first experiment.

On other occasions, Nadia has contrasted Consumers and Participants as a way of framing what’s wrong with Mainline Christianity.  She did allude to that critique in her Omaha talk, and she gave examples of how people are invited to participate in House for All Sinners and Saints as opposed to passively consume.  I find this cultural criticism to be more descriptive of the struggle we are facing in the Church rather than the Institutional Authority vs Personal Experience one.

This alternative analysis of American culture highlights the ways in which consumerism captivates the Church.  The marketplace succeeded in teaching Americans that they could have whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it.  They can personalize their Nikes and their smartphone.  They can listen to their preferred playlist of music.  They can watch a TV show when it suits their schedule.  If elected officials don't deliver exactly what they want, they can give their money to a political action committee that will supply a more pleasing candidate. Soon they may even have drones "hand" delivering their purchases to their doors at any hour of the day or night. They bring that same “the customer is always right” mentality to Church--  “Here’s my order, church staff.  Here’s my money.  Where’s my God stuff?”  If the church’s music, liturgy, and/or sermon don’t match their preferences, they will shop elsewhere.

The Church delivers a message that is the opposite of the one in the marketplace.  The Church proclaims, “You don’t know what’s best for you.  You need a savior to rescue you out of your ignorance.”  As Nadia reminded us, worship is always for you it just isn't all about you.  The purpose of life isn't about getting served what you want when and how you want it, but about you serving what God wants, when and how God wills it.  This means that “not my will but Thy will be done” is more than a catchy slogan or an empty pledge of allegiance to be paid lip-service.  

The Church’s message does not have massive sales-appeal, it will not secure us great market-shares, Nielsen-ratings, or corporate profits.  Nevertheless, in order to be faithful to its mission, it is the truth that the Church must share.

Refusing to cater to individual preferences will severely test people’s commitment to being part of God's faithful community.  Will they sacrifice other activities when scheduling conflicts arise?   Will they stay if they can’t sing the kind of music they like?  Will they keep coming even if the preacher isn’t funny or entertaining?  Will they remain loyal even when the sanctuary’s decor or technology is outdated?  If their involvement with the Church is all about satisfying their personal tastes rather than seeking God's will, then no they won’t return.

There are other reasons why the Mainline Church is in decline.  Consumerism is just one of many.  It’s tempting to try to win people back through popular appeal.  The House for All Sinners and Saints is evidence that there’s another way to be Church, one which feels more faithful and less like selling out.