“Hear this, your rulers of the house of Jacob…..its prophets give oracles for money; yet they learn upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” (Micah 3:9-11 NRSV)
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; there, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (Matthew 23:1-3 NRVS)
During the next few weeks, lection readings in “liturgical churches” are often filled with judgment and harsh evaluations. Just when a break seems to arrive in early December, you will be hit with harsh words from John the Baptist! No wonder people used to ask me, “When do we get to hear about sweet Jesus, Christmas and sing more carols?”
Religious leadership was sharply criticized in our ancient Hebrew reading from Micah and from the early church recorded words of Jesus. To summarize, religious leadership seemed to forget their role as spiritual leaders. They became more interested in community recognition and honors. Religious roles were used to assume authority positions in the community rather than modeling humble service and spiritual comfort.
When I applied to Pittsburgh Seminary in 1969, I took a psychological inventory as part of my evaluation. “Why,” I asked and the dean replied, “To discern whether you want to serve God and people or use your position as a short-cut to an authority position!” Apparently many ministers, priests and rabbis referred to in our passages would have failed.
We ask, “How might the church institution be rated today?” Would the test reveal leaders as viable servants to the souls and hearts of people or more inclined to special privileges and benefits?
According to recent Pew Foundation Religious Research, organized religions are in bad favor and odds of a short term revival look slim. Polling people from the USA and Europe, citizens express fear of religious institutions as the 2nd greatest they have! The 1st is the growing wealth gap between rich and poor and the 3rd is nuclear war.
The Foundation also discovered 75% of these populations view organized religions as losing their influence and worse, constitute a negative factor for creating a more humane and just world! As a logical corollary, only 40% of Americans now maintain church membership and a recent Gallup Poll suggest probably only 20% of those attend. Meanwhile, 4000 churches are closing each year (up from 3500 ten years ago) with only 1000 new ones “planted.”
What about Presbyterians? Since 2006, the Presbyterian (USA) denomination lost 20% of its membership and nearly 50% since 1970. You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see where it’s heading! In the last General Assembly statistical report from 2012, 86 Presbyterian USA churches were closed, 110 dismissed to other denominations, and 13 new churches “planted.” A dismal portrayal of “God as good all the time!”
So we ask, are there any religious groups left who are growing? Research from the Pew Foundation reported groups associated with Eastern religions are experiencing the fastest growth in the U.S. and Europe. In the United States, Buddhist/Hindu related groups have grown over 200% since 1990. The Muslim faith has also grown but it is mostly related to ethnicity rather than an overall large appeal as the Buddhist/Hindu faith. Why? Why is this happening?
The Buddhist/Hindu/Eastern based religions experience such growth, in my opinion, because they are most like the early centuries of the Christian Church under the influence of teachings of a man named Jesus. Shocking? Perhaps, but consider their beliefs and methods of operation.
First, Eastern based religions operate mostly outside of centralized authorities. They are based on influential leaders who are living today or from past years, even centuries. These leaders, with writings left from many, base their teachings on what some define as the mystical, wisdom or contemplative approaches. Spirit, God, Atman, Tao, Jesus, Kingdom of God do not primarily mean entities outside of the human consciousness but within it. They teach the way to experience a universal Divine Presence is to go within and listen. The process is accessible to everyone everywhere. I would say this correlates well to the essence of Jesus’ message found within Bibles; “The Kingdom of God or Heaven” is within you! Pretty simple. It’s everywhere, as close as your breath, as close as your awareness or “awakening.”
Eastern based religions today were likely very similar to the first 300 years of the Christian Church in our era. They teach peace, forgiveness, and love as coming from our awareness wherever we are and whatever we may be doing. Suddenly we see an option many of us may have missed, perhaps for centuries; we don’t need church buildings with dogmas, beliefs and creeds to know we are one with God, Spirit, or the inexpressible presence called Love! As Buddhism teaches, popularized in recent decades by many; Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay, even Oprah, and certainly His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Spirit is interconnected and present among all. We experience it by its realization with the practice of meditation, silence, affirmations, chanting, maybe even sprinkled with a little incense and bells! Walla! It’s ours for the asking!
So we see such access can easily bypass groups, big and small, seeking to maintain church buildings, temples, and cathedrals with expensive equipment and maintenance. Electronics, rock’n music and a staff of leaders, teachers and fund organizers are simply options. Church is Spirit, not buildings, programs and many activities. When you can access Divine awareness anywhere, who really needs them?
I do not say physical places have no part in accessibility, but they can easily become idol substitutes. They are secondary. Organized religious groups quickly become competitive, divisive, blame-casting and often mean about who isn’t doing enough, giving enough, being nice enough.
So do not become attached or concerned with buildings. You can meet anywhere. “Where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them.” The early church was mostly a “house church” with community teachers like Jesus and Paul, growing at rates never repeated after the 4th Century “creed and unity certification” process.
Our son’s wife is a fascinating person. Petra grew up under Russian controlled communism in the Czech Republic. As a young lady, a revolution occurred in 1989 under the inspiration of poet/writer Vaclav Havel. She met our son in the late 90’s when he traveled to Prague a few years to help organize classes to teach representative government and market economies. Both now live near Syracuse with our latest little grandchild and work on the staff at Syracuse University. Naomi and I visited her parents’ home and country in 2003. I was told most of the country’s population declared themselves atheists. A couple summers ago, Petra visited her parents and while there taught a class at Prague University. When she returned she told me, “David, you must visit my country. A phenomenal thing is occurring; people are gathering in hundreds of homes and places to meditate, share readings and do yoga!” The Czech Republic is littered with hundreds of old castles and large empty cathedrals. Some have been saved for museums. Yet, the “church,” a group of people “being called” out by a new kind of wind or spirit, is taking off and flourishing.
It’s all about love being experienced and renewed daily within our hearts and minds, alone and together. I suggest you consider meeting in groups, homes and even in church buildings, to share your journeys in readings, silence and meditation. Even some yoga! Importantly, each one practice meditation and readings in your homes. Don’t worry about saving buildings and programs which may no longer are needed for our times. And whatever, don’t allow anything; people, programs, buildings, structure or exclusive creeds, to bar your mind and lives from the inexpressible, wonderful, flowing Presence within reach of all.
I close with one of my past favorite songs, written in 1995 by Presbyterian ministers Richard Avery and Donald Marsh. Its title is: “The Church is Not a Building!”
The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.
We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces,
all colors and all ages, too, from all times and places.
I am the church, you are the church, we are the Church together!
All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes we’re the church together.
Reflections offered November 2, 2014, at the 1st Presbyterian Church of Dunkirk, NY.