Just a little SAT prep for you. That little word analogy is something that I’ve been pondering. This article captures something that I think is true, but I’m not sure I’m as sanguine about it.
A parish is a geographical area. Instead of counties the state of LA, French Catholic in origin, has parishes. The catholic church has parishes. My moniker here is Parson Brown. Besides recalling the Christmas song and a cagy mystery solver, the parson is the parish minister. The church in America, even without an established religion, has always acted like a parish. The assumption was that everyone was a member by reason of living in the geography. Some were closer to ideal and some further, but members. Hence at baptism, marriages and funerals, it didn’t matter, the church was sought out. And the church, unless you were a sect, performed the function. A parish fulfills a cultural spot. It might and in most cases is built around a “cult” which I’m defining as a set of shared beliefs, but the secret of the “cult” is that it is never actually questioned. The culture is that which goes without questioning or justification.
A congregation is a gathering of believers. A congregation gathers around a confession – “we believe, teach and confess…” The joke Q: How do you get rid of the bats in the steeple A: You confirm them, is a confessional joke. The confessional can’t understand why you would confirm something and then be completely absent. To the cultural, it is just something you do as a shared experience. To the confessional, life is a reflection on and a spring welling up from a set of shared beliefs. We believe is God the Father Almighty…We believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord…We believe in the Holy Spirit. Those beliefs are the the foundation you build on and the target you shoot for. Jesus is a the alpha and the omega. And the confessional is driven to those end-poles.
A confessional grouping can’t help but create its own culture through the shaping of beliefs. And sometimes, if it gets big enough, that culture drifts and forgets its end-point moorings. We just do this, well, why do we do this? No, that can’t be why? Sometimes it can be called back. Sometimes not.
What that article is very sanguine about is saying that now is a time that it can’t. The drift has been too long, too far and too sustained. In fact, like most confessionals, the article might be positively giddy thinking about the “vibrant congregations in an increasing secular environment. That’s the future.” Oh, I can see that. I can understand that. But I also wonder, as “Christians continue to lose what some have called a home-field advantage” what things we don’t think about now come into question. Do you really think that the charitable contribution tax break withstands the budget pressures? What does that do to congregations? How many congregational members are up to making a positive confession by which I mean that making the confession will cost them something. The biblical examples of that are not encouraging (John 6:60-66, Mark 14:32-50).
The clock is swinging toward the confessional and the congregational. That is a good thing. But I wouldn’t seek to hasten the swing. Everything in its season. Making clear confessions, necessary. Forcing confessional confrontations with “those who are not against us” (Luke 9:50) is probably avoidable.