Thesis 2: We're Still Buying Indulgences
This post is the third in a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in this series here.
"2. This word [repentance] cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests."Simply put, Luther is trying to separate the (trans)act(ion) of buying and selling indulgences from the act of true repentance, or as we spoke about in the last post, a true rethinking (re-penso/pensare) of one's thoughts and actions, something Kurt thinks we too easily separate.
I wonder how far we've really gotten in the past 500 years in terms of remembering that all the baptized are members of a royal priesthood? Don't we still largely rely on Sunday morning worship to "feel better" about the distance we've felt from God all week? We go to worship to feel rejuvenated, or to continue in our exploration of Latin nerdiness, made young again. Of course, this is not always a bad thing. Feeling rejuvenated by the presence of God and God's people is a good thing. However, I fear it is the only place we seek out that presence. I fear that we count on the preacher, the ushers, the videos, the worship band, the pre-written prayer to conjure the Spirit for us like some genie from a bottle.
We let the church do the work that we should be expecting of the Holy Spirit. We plan the agendas of our worship services so tightly that we squeeze out any cracks through which God could enter unexpectedly.
Think about how well we pay our pastors at larger churches that are growing in number. Is this not a new form of indulgence? Are we paying them to pastor, or to be fantastic task administrators and public speakers?
Think about the way we set up our sanctuaries for worship. Do they not perfectly resemble the setup of a classroom of the industrial revolution, though research has shown for decades that columns and rows of purportedly passive vessels receiving the teacher's words (or the Word!) is good for on-task work and obedient behavior, rather than social exchange.
We are setting up our sanctuaries to reinforce individualism, passivity, and obedience, rather than social exchange, relationships, and new thinking.
What if we did worship (maybe just the teaching time) in small, clustered groups spread out around the sanctuary? What if we did worship "in the round," similar to the way that Quakers frequently worship? Many of our newer churches are forgoing pews in favor of chairs anyway.
What if saw our priests (We call them "elders" in the United Methodist Church.) as facilitators of the worship experience, rather than the main attraction? At our more attractional/extractional churches, we focus the advertisement of the worship hour, and indeed that particular local church on the whole, with a sermon series, complete with a logo, a promo video, and a slogan.
I know I'm not breaking any new ground here, but it bears repeating: How is this not the same thing that a normal business selling a product would do? And even if we admit this about the way we communicate our churches' existences, why have we accepted this as the norm? Why do we shrug our shoulders at this mimicry of our American way of doing business?
The church is not a business. Mimicking the business world to grow our churches is dangerous.
So, back to Luther.
He saw major problems and opened dialogue. I pray we will allow ourselves to discuss these things civilly. The times when I've brought these concerns to light with others have created bristly, defensive postures that close off conversation. We are taking cues from the world of selling products. I find this difficult to argue against. So, what does that mean for us? What should we do about it? What should we do differently than other revenue-generating institutions in order that we don't fall into the traps of our consumer-driven culture?