Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Church for Adults

Some years ago I was speaking with a dear friend about his marriage and his future family. We talked about the couple and their plans for children. Being a priest, I also asked about their worship. My friend, raised in a Southern Baptist Church when it was still a bastion of freedom of thought, said, “Well, I’m sure we will join the church when we have children. I certainly want them to learn to live ethically.”

Now, I had and continue to have two problems with this statement. The second, as you will imagine, was the thought that the only point of the Church was to teach good morals. However, I was also struck by the first: the thought that participation in Church was determined by the needs and interests of children.

I’ve seen that attitude lived out often enough. We’ve observed it for years in families that fell away as soon as the youngest child finished the Sunday School curriculum, or left to go away to college. The most egregious case I recall was the parents who timed their Sunday morning tennis to coincide with Sunday School. Two children were dropped off at the back door of the parish, clean and polished and well dressed. Their parents, in their tennis whites and court shoes, smiled, waved them on, and drove off to the club. They were, though, quite observant and punctual: they had finished their play and were waiting again in the car when the children came out an hour or so later.

I was not raised that way. As soon as my parents thought I could stay home alone without burning the house down (at a young age that would be thought scandalous today), I was responsible for my own church attendance. After all, the church we attended was just under a block away. I could walk there easily and safely. If I wanted to stay home, I could. However, if I stayed home, I stayed home alone. My parents went to church with or without me, because it was important to them. Church wasn’t dependent on the needs or the interests of the children. Church was for adults.

This has long seemed to me a principal we might explore. What would it mean if we understood that Church was for adults? I mean, how far could we take that? It convinced me at an early age that Church was worth my time and effort; for as a child what did I want to be but an adult? I have speculated before about not allowing children to attend worship until they were sixteen. However, that was reflecting on the supposed power of exclusion, a power I did not and do not think the Episcopal Church would embrace. Rather, what would a Church for adults look like?

Certainly, it would engage in adult Christian Education. That might seem obvious, and yet as a supply priest I have seen many congregations that offered little if any. Many times I have heard concerns about having a Sunday School program for children, as much to attract their parents as to teach the children. Too often I have heard little about educating adults in Christian living. I am one who thinks many of our current difficulties have come because too many of our lay people have had too little education about the faith as this Episcopal Church has received it. As a corollary, I think too few have had the opportunity to be engaged, to share their own questions and thoughts as part of the educational process.

I think such adult education would be made available to high school and perhaps even junior high students. I’m not thinking here of intergenerational events, as valuable as they might be in themselves. Rather, I’m thinking of that those adolescents who are so close to adulthood, and from whom we are expecting more and more mature behavior, should see it modeled in the adults with whom they worship. They need to see that in this Church adults are seeking to grow in faith. They also need to see adults raising questions about the faith, and discussing those questions with one another, as acceptable within the context of our life together. In Church and out we need them to see how Christian adults live out their faith; and we need them to see it from all the congregation, not just the youth work “experts.”

What else might be characteristic of a Church for adults? Well, adults should be able to address difficult issues, both of life and faith (an artificial distinction, to be sure). It would encourage independence of thought. There are those who understand “receiving the Kingdom like a child” as mandating avoidance of hard issues, and repetition of core articles of faith. However, in my experience children aren’t that trusting and credulous, at least initially. Adults aren’t usually, either; except when faith communities try to circumscribe the explorations of members. A Church for adults would face, and not shy away from, difficult issues.

And in facing those issues a Church for adults would manage discussions that were civil, intelligent, and mutually respectful. We tend to think that adults are able to be thoughtful, and to discuss and disagree; or at least we tend to think that behavior is adult (because not all people of age behave that way). So our debates and discussions should be serious, and also engaging; passionate, and also enlightening. (I’ll admit that I think that at our best we Episcopalians can do thoughtful discussion quite well; but I don’t think we’re alone in that.)

These are just some initial thoughts. What would you think would be the characteristics, values, and value of a Church for adults?

6 comments:

brian said...

Why don't you think that church is to make people more ethical? What else is it for?

Marshall said...

The Church is intended to be the Body of Christ in the world. It is to provide a context in which we can live in relationship with God and with one another. Living moral lives is, we hope a consequence of that; and part of living in those relationships is learning more about how God wants us to live as moral creatures. However, that's a consequence, and not an end in itself - much less the end in itself.

brian said...

I have read, from pretty reliable sources (Pew, Barna)that there is a lower percentage of atheists in prison than in the general population, that places with high levels of religious belief/practice tend to be higher, not lower, in levels of social pathologies and lower in quality of life: compare the Pacific Northwest with the Deep South or ghettos/barrios.
It seems that you're asking me to run twice as fast so that I can go backwards.
I don't see the point of being with other people if I'm going to end up spending extra time with people who've been in prison, gotten pregnant out of wedlock, overeat, don't believe in evolution and are more likely to steal and drink too much.

Marshall said...

brian, I don't know that I'm "asking" you to do anything. My purpose here is not evangelism in the stereotypic sense.

As for spending time with "people who've been in prison, gotten pregnant out of wedlock, overeat, don't believe in evolution and are more likely to steal and drink too much:" well, that's who Jesus spent his time with. As Chesterton said through his character, Fr. Brown, "You would not touch such people with a barge pole; but we are required to touch them, not with a barge pole but with a benediction." ("The Chief Mourner of Marne," The Secret of Father Brown). We do fail at it, of course; we are human, and not capable of perfection. So, we realize we aren't really better than they are or more important than they are, at least before God. Perhaps my sins aren't theirs, but they are sins nonetheless.

As a result, we all are called to support one another in growing in the faith, including in living more moral lives, precisely because none of us can do it entirely on his or her own. We need to know God, both in the faith as delivered and as God acts in those around us, including "people who've been in prison, gotten pregnant out of wedlock, overeat, don't believe in evolution and are more likely to steal and drink too much."

That said, I do believe in education and evolution. I understand the point of the Big Bang theory, if not the math. I am a Christian, just not one who fits your stereotype. So, you can consider whether you think my claim to be Christian is really meaningless; or you can consider whether there's a serious limitation to your stereotype.

Anonymous said...

Father,

I'm late here, but I do think that being a christian means something, it is not just a bunch of beliefs about theology, the trinity, virgin birth and so forth. You can probably guess that I do not agree with my catholic church on several points, but as a group they helped me. But could I find any church that I agreed with on everything? I like to think that maybe christians may believe the right doctrines. But the real test is how they treat others. Frank(I hope you remember me(us).

Marshall said...

Frank, of course I remember you.

I think you come to the point about how we treat each other. As someone else has reminded me lately (another blog, but I don't recall the citation), Scripture says those outside the Church will know us - or should know us - by how we love each other, and not by repeating "correct" doctrine. I think that must entail some allowance for differences, and some capacity to love one another in and with our differences, and not just despite.