Thursday, July 2, 2015

Swimming to Shore

Solitude eventually offers a quiet gift of grace,
a gift that comes whenever we are able to face ourselves honestly:
the gift of acceptance, of compassion, for who we are as we are.
As we allow ourselves to be known in solitude, we discover that we are known by Love.
Beyond the pain of self-discovery there is a Love that does not condemn us
but calls us to itself. This Love receives us as we are.
--Parker Palmer

            It was in the searching  for a new church to worship in, during the "quiet gift of grace" we found in the solitude, where our vision cleared.  The painful discovery for me (Jeff) was that I could no longer abide with the Protestant notions of worship. What were those disturbing notions that had surely set the tide of our lives toward the Catholic Church? There is an unspoken, sometimes unintentional, motivation in the evangelical Protestant movement. Behind the decisions to start new churches, known as church plants, there is a systemic malady that pervades the Protestant movement, no matter what denominational affiliation.  Authority is fluid.  Older established churches are either declining in numbers and/or reclining in entrenchment and apathy.  It is a given fact that most established churches struggle with leadership succession and so when a new generation desires change that will equal the allure of its own age, the old guard more often than not fights to keep their own authority over what they believe is germane to their generation. Because church authority is local and based on a short history of denominational organization, many churches tend toward solving their perceived problems with man-centered solutions. Solutions that appear to be democratic, but are often myopic.  Solutions that may appear on the surface as prudent are really simply another attempt at plugging the dike of a 500-year old reservoir of the turbulent waters of rebellion. Rather than pastors and their superiors knocking their heads against the fixed positions of the biggest donors or the loudest detractors in the church, the solution often is to start another church. At other times the solution is to find new pastoral leadership, someone who can either "lead" or placate the dissenting voices or come up with new ways and means to attract the culture.  The decisions to start  new churches or to find a new pastor may have started because of division in the church or to prevent parishioners from leaving the local church. Either way the undercurrent of protest is never treated, the dike cannot be repaired.
            The present cultural fascination with mega-entertainment churches that attract a consumer driven society earns the evangelical church's idiom, "a mile wide and an inch deep." The innovation seems to incline well to the culture yet a closer look reveals that pastors have the incredible pressure to balance intriguing sermons and experiences that cater to the culture's frantic want for distraction from the realities of their lives.  Behind some of the motivation in ministry programming is a desire to engage the congregation in following Christ in a relevant way within the culture.  At first glance this appears commendable.  But there is another motivation that lurks around decisions that are made. A pastor and his staff know that the people they serve can find another place to attend on Sunday mornings if they are bored with the smorgasbord of choices their church serves up every Sunday.I have even heard pastors referred to as coaches by church leadership. When the coach and his team cease to have "wins" that meet the approval of the "fans" then it's time for a new coaching team.  My goodness, the myriad of notions that have filled the vacuum of the Protestant movement. Any pastor that pulls back from the busyness he is driven to pursue eventually recognizes he is just one more sincere little boy trying his best to keep the reservoir from giving way around him.
            The environment of these rising star churches can best be described by what one young person told us about a church she had decided to attend.  When we queried her on why she had chosen that particular church her answer spoke for the culture. "I always have a good time and come away feeling good.  That's what it's all about, isn't it?"  Is it? Is worship of the Triune God about inclining to the wants of the culture in order to attract people to attend church to feel good?  Is worship something we attend?  Or is it something we give? Is it something we experience? Or something we do? We knew that the evangelical Protestant answer to that is given every Sunday in an assortment of choices. Some more unsettling than others.
            Bagels and designer coffee are often available for purchase before entering the "worship center." Some churches even have a breakfast bar at the back of the worship center so you can get up and help yourself during the "worship" hour.  It is not unusual to observe people bringing their own fast food breakfast they had grabbed on the way to church.  If the church has multiple venues for their Sunday morning worship experience then the pastor's 30-45 minute sermon is simulcast.  Most often, at least in the contemporary services, the lights are low which sets the mood for the performance on the stage. The dressed-down experience is meant to attract the entertainment-driven culture and it works! Full bands and sound and light shows are not uncommon  and the talent on the stage is most often polished and professional. 
            We had observed another unsettling normal in most of the up and coming Protestant churches.   We shouldn't have been surprised by it because it is a trend that has grown out of the "Church Growth" movement we had witnessed in the 80's: the separation of generations and the very purposeful catering to children, or should we say the parents of children.  When our own "church shopping" began after our resignation we realized the denomination we had served was no different in their wants and demands than other Protestant denominations. One particular example is a conspicuous demonstration of how far the church has strayed from the biblical purpose of worship.  A summer "sermon" series was advertised as a fantastic way to bring the generations together in "worship."  Each Sunday popcorn and soda would be served and a section from a popular movie series would  be broadcast through the church's multi-media system.  The music and sermon would be developed around a theme in the movie that the church staff felt was relevant.  It is no wonder that the younger generation has difficulty in distinguishing Truth from fiction when it is communicated that to be a "good Christian" is like being a heroic Jedi!
            It wasn't long into our search for a new church home before it was apparent that finding an evangelical Protestant church was obviously not the problem. We had plenty of opt-out churches to choose from, plenty! But we quickly discovered we weren't interested in shopping until we found an evangelical church that fit us for we had discovered that we didn't fit the evangelical Protestant movement anymore. We were not interested in finding a style of worship that suited our preferences. That understanding came with a sense of relief, yet we didn't know where to turn.  We knew that many were beginning to opt out of church altogether, formulating their own "worship" of God to meet their needs. That was not an option for us, we still had a longing to find a solid ground of biblical and moral authority that held fast to tenets of The Faith. We still longed for worship that held fast to the Word of God.  And so we perused the liturgical Protestant menu to see what we might try.
            The liberal stream of the Protestant movement has erupted in a devolution of its own. But we held out hope there were still some denominations that had not wavered on the primacy of the Scriptures and biblical moral standards.  We located a mainline church where worship was somewhat liturgical and the preaching seemed to be Christ-centered.  We had been attending for a few months when our son encouraged us to take a close look at the denomination's theological statements.  We were able to locate the most recent revisions the denomination had made to their constitution on the basic tenets of The Faith and biblical morality and found they were in direct contradiction to sacred Scripture and the teaching of the historical Church. Though the local congregation seemed to hold to the authority of Scripture, the foundation the denomination stood on was crumbling beneath the weight of modernity.  That denomination's recent compromises added to the long list of concessions on the authority of the Scripture that other spiritually sterile mainline denominations had made.  We could not be participants in the evisceration of The Faith that was emptying the mainline denominations of life.  We really were not surprised that we did not fit the mainline Protestant movement, but the foray into that side of the movement did oblige us to continue to ask the hard questions about what we believed and why we believed it.

"Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer
and it will be opened to you by contemplation." --Guigo II

           "Shop 'til you drop"  took on new meaning.  We came to a very abrupt realization that we were not going to shop for a church home anymore. We needed to answer some of the questions that had preoccupied  our minds and the only way that was going to happen was through examination. We returned to one question again and again: Why does division in the Protestant movement still prevail after 500 years? And why does the Catholic Church remain intact after 2,000 years?    The very oldest Protestant denominations date back to the 16th century Reformation. Yet these denominations have fractured so many times in the 500 years since the Reformation that many have ceased to have a strong identity with the founders of their denominations.  It became apparent to us that denominationalism was continuing to do to the Protestant movement exactly what the Protestant Reformers tried to do to the Catholic Church.  That helped to explain the disrespect of pastoral leadership and even rebellion against biblical authority in the local churches of many denominations. Protest and division are in the genetic code of the movement. Because there is no secure center of authority or Tradition, the movement is more like a mutant cell dividing at will. To date there are some 33,000  Protestant denominations.  Yet there is only one Church that has not given way to the culture of rebellion and division.  There  is still one, holy, catholic and  apostolic  Church. 
           Our list of questions kept growing. Surely there was a reason that billions of faithful  believers around the world have remained faithful to the Catholic Church?  Surely there was a reason that the Catholic Church has not altered its worship through history to stay relevant with each generation?  Surely there was a reason why the Papacy and the Authority of the Church (Magisterium)  stand as a paragon of biblical authority?  We knew we needed answers to the doubt about the condition of the Protestant church that had preoccupied our minds during the unfortunate  experiences in our last pastorate and then in our own church shopping. The only way that was going to happen was through examination. We knew if we were going to be faithful to Christ, we were going to have to be faithful to His Bride--His Church. We hungered and thirsted for biblically-ordained worship and the stability of a Church that held firm the teachings of Christ and the Traditions of The Faith.  Where would we find that integrity? We were now at the threshold of the Catholic Church and it was time to consider  it together.


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