Saturday, May 23, 2009

Does place really make a difference for the Church (Part 1 of an ongoing series)?

I consider the question of place and the Church to be the driving question of my life. The answers to this question will often be subjective and anecdotal, but I also hold on to the belief that the social sciences can lend something objective to the discussion. Though I have yet to be able to follow my dream of studying this theme in the halls of academia, the discussion has become more immediate in my household because my dear wife has her own questions and observations about Church and place. For only the 2nd year of her life now, she is living outside the Midwest. It is a large part of her work to interpret the context of the Pacific Northwest and use that interpretation for the benefit of the Church. What I appreciate about my dear wife's new curiosity is that she has already begun to challenge my assumptions about the relationship between place and Church.

I still hold on to my hypothesis that the Pacific Northwest has some unique variables in relationship to the Church, but I also recognize that the way that PNW Church folk sometimes address this information in a narcissistic way, with a chip on their shoulder, an excuse for not fulfilling their calling, or in extreme cases--with a nihilistic despair. After only 3 weeks here, my wife and I have heard the statement, "THIS is the PACIFIC NORTHWEST" when attempting to be ambitious about our callings. I can see that the struggles of Mainline/Oldline Protestants in this region create a certain amount of defensiveness. Though we in the Church work with such high abstractions as theology and ideas, we also deal with livelihoods and a basic sense of belonging. As we have observed closely, our denomination can no longer just throw money at a situation and hope congregations spring up. A literalist reading of the Parable of the Sower is not operative (or is it?). Throwing seed willy-nilly appears to be bad stewardship. Mainline/Oldline Protestant congregations are hurting financially as in many sectors of the nation. The level of anxiety for stewards of Christ's Church is rising. I hope we don't lose our way by failing to ask good questions about context and place.

The relationship of place and Church is not without humor. During my tour of South Dakota Ranch Country, I found a congregation in Perkins County with a feature I had never seen. Maybe this configuration was more common in pioneering days--but check out the outhouse for this Catholic Church. I can count on 2 hands how many times I've had to use an outhouse, and stories of outhouses are part of various local legends. I thought it interesting that the outhouse was still there--though I was afraid to open the door and see if it was still operational. Though I came to know and love many people in South Dakota Ranch Country, if I didn't know some of the locals, I still had visions of someone coming after me with a rifle and shouting "get off my land!"

I am looking forward to all of the comparisons and contrasts of place and Church as I reexplore the Pacific Northwest--and learning what my dear wife's eyes see as well.

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