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The Church: Problem or Potential?
What is the Role of Religious Institutions in Society?

1/27/84; Revised 1/27/98

There is wide-spread concern about the future of the Christian Church. Some mainline theologians are predicting that the church of tomorrow will bear little resemblance to the church of today. The prognosis of future events and trends has never never achieved a high degree of validity. But such exercises of speculation are interesting and provide a basis for discussion. Each individual would visualize a different script; but, hopefully, the following projection will stimulate thought and discussion regarding the church in the 21st century.

The church of the future will continue to enlarge and deepen its conception of God. Our understanding of Deity-Reality will grow in complexity following the thinking of Alfred Whitehead and Carl Jung. There will be a growing realization of the centrality of Christ and a diminishing appreciation of Paul and Old Testament theology, along with a continued demythologizing of the Bible. This ascendancy of a Jesusonian understanding of God and the spiritual nature of salvation will result in the demise of the Pauline blood atonement theory. Our culture will undergo an astronomical-spiritual conceptual shift that abandons the simplistic "heaven" of ancient times and visualizes a vast spiritual cosmology harmonious with the contemporary scientific view of the cosmos.

The Nature of Religion

Religion is fundamentally an individual experience of values. In its highest form, it is the experience of supreme value—Ultimate Reality—God. Inevitably, individual religious experience results in social expressions of religion, the formation of religious institutions in society. Religion cannot survive in civilization without institutionalized forms of belief, worship, practice, and tradition. Religious cults are more creative and unifying when they are organized around goals and purposes rather than theological dogmas and authoritarian creeds. Dogmas tend to become stereotyped and limit imagination and growth. Institutionalized religion provides an appealing symbolism for preserving values through fostering sentiment and gratifying emotion. Its power lies in the vividness of its human appeal.

Religious organizations are more effective and constructive when they are kept separate from other social groups and secular activities. Their task is to present and enhance spiritual realities and principles. The application of those principles to the many facets of life is the task of the individual and other social organizations. Whenever religious organizations attempt to become advocates of social, economic, or political activities instead of spiritual principles, they lose their prophetic capacity and become identified with aspects of the secular society. By compromising their unique spiritual role, they are unable to furnish the spiritual renewal needed by the secular institutions of civilization.

Religious institutions can keep free of secular alliances by: (1) A critical corrective philosophy. (2) Freedom from institutional social, economic, and political associations. (3) Creative pastoral care and love-expanding fellowships. (4) Prophetic spiritual insight and appreciation of cosmic values. (5) Avoiding fanaticism through the corrective influences of scientific and objective academic attitudes.

The Christian Church

The church is a human social institution dedicated to a religious-spiritual purpose. The life and teachings of Jesus is the most dynamic influence ever to activate humankind on our planet, but Jesus did not found the church. The reference to the church by Jesus in Matt. 16:18-19 was actually added to the text by the early church according to Rudolf Bultmann and other theologians. The church in Jesus' day did not exist.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God which is a spiritual relationship—vertically in the recognition of God as our heavenly Father, and horizontally in the acknowledgement of our fellows as our brothers and sisters. The religion of Jesus is best summarized as "The Fatherhood of God and the brothersisterhood of humankind."

The basic principles of the kingdom are (U. B. p. 1863):

1. The pre-eminence of the individual. People are not means to be manipulated but ends in themselves. They have intrinsic value in the eyes of God.

2. The will as the determining factor in human experience. In our spiritual destiny we are not the victims of fate but determine the ultimate nature of our existence. Not where we are now but the direction in which we are facing is the important thing.

3. Spiritual fellowship with God the Father. This inner relationship is the key to shaping our attitudes, our faith, and our destiny.

4. The supreme satisfaction of the loving service of man. Loving service is more important than the intellectual theology we have and the basis for fulfillment and happiness in life.

5. The transcendency of the spiritual over the material in human personality. Spiritual realities through the mediation of our minds and our faith eventually dominate and shape our personalities in spite of material limitations or handicaps.

Early Christianity was the most effective, appealing, and enduring cult ever devised in world history. It was largely founded on the religious experience and theological orientation of Paul. Even today the church is only meagerly Jesusonian. The enthusiasm engendered by the resurrection inadvertently led Paul and the early church into a new gospel about Jesus in place of the original gospel message of the Fatherhood of God and the brother/sisterhood of humankind.

The institutionalized church became a virtual substitute for Jesus' concept of the kingdom of God. The simple spiritual appeal which Jesus made to the souls of humankind was extrapolated by Christianity into a new order of human society. The church has often presumed to lay claim to those mysterious powers and privileges which can be exercised and experienced only between Jesus and his spiritual believers. The church is not synonymous with the kingdom of heaven; the one is largely a human social organization, the other is a spiritual relationship.

Today the church has been traditionalized, dogmatized, and institutionalized. Its creativity and growth are threatened by formalism, over organization, intellectualism, and other nonspiritual preoccupations. As a result the Christian Churches of today, unconsciously and unintentionally, stand as great obstacles to spiritual growth and the actualization of the centrality of the teachings of Jesus.

Dangers of Religious Institutions

The institutionalization of religion is socially necessary and good but in doing so religious power for good is curtailed and its possibilities for evil are increased. Some of the dangers of formalized religion are (U. B. p. 1092):

1. The fixation of beliefs and the crystallization of worship. Religion becomes a routine and truth is standardized and eventually fossilized. The zealots of the church become intolerant judges of orthodoxy.

2. The diversion of religion from the service of God and our fellows to the service of the church. There is an inclination of leaders to become administrators or theologians instead of pastors and ministers. In time an oppressive ecclesiastical authority evolves.

3. There is an accumulation of vested interests and possessions that results in an entanglement with secular institutions and the secularization of the church.

4. Competitive divisions and numerous sects form which encourage discrimination, elitism, and "chosen people" attitudes.

5. There is a tendency to venerate the past while ignoring present needs and opportunities. Such traditionalism fosters false and exaggerated ideas of sacredness and fails to make up to date interpretations of spiritual values and religious practices.

Such a traditionalized, dogmatized, and institutionalized church fails to hold the interest of adventurous youth and gradually loses its relevancy and its enthusiasm in proclaiming the saving message of the gospel of eternal salvation. Creativity and growth are forced outside of the institutional organization.

Strength of Religious Institutions

There are many significant contributions which the socialization of religion has to offer any civilization. Ideally, religious institutions should serve both as the foundation of a society and its guiding star. Some of the positive services which the church can contribute to individuals and society are (U.B. p. 1092):

1. Witness to faith in the Fatherhood of God and the brother/sisterhood of humankind as it is exemplified in the religion of Jesus. Dramatize and magnify the lures of truth, beauty, and goodness and foster spiritual growth. Present prophetic spiritual insight into the wisdom and meaning of contemporary living and provide supreme ideals and goals for living.

2. Enhance the beauty, attractiveness, and meaningfulness of group worship. Provide the naturalness, simplicity, and beauty of spiritual symbolism and avoid artificiality and complexity of rituals and rules.

3. Magnify the value of unselfish service, loving fellowship, and neighborhood welfare. Augment moral values and inspire living by high ethical principles. Bring unity amidst diversity and provide permanence in a world of constant change. Promote ecumenical participation with all religious groups.

4. Glorify the potentials of the family and provide incentives and opportunities for family participation at home and in the church.

5. Promote realistic and vital religious education with rites of passage associated with spiritual ritual observances.

6. Provide wise counsel and spiritual guidance. Give individual attention so that all feel the love of the extended church family.

7. Facilitate the spread of the gospel message of the Fatherhood of God and the brother/sisterhood of humankind to all people. Function as a missionary of spiritual truth and loving service, not in the promotion of doctrinaire positions or ecclesiastical boundaries.

The Future of the Church

Jesus concept of the kingdom of God will prevail. In spite of its limitations, the church is one of the greatest powers for good on earth. The contemporary church is but the larval stage of the thwarted spiritual kingdom that Jesus came to establish. The kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus is still alive and will one day emerge as the dominant spiritual force on our planet.

The kingdom of God is an invisible and spiritual brother/sisterhood which is destined to become a living organism transcending social institutions. We are called to spiritual unity, not uniformity. There will always be a diversity of intellectual comprehension and interpretation. Spiritual unity is based on common ideals, purposes, and goals, not on the same theological beliefs and creeds. In this fellowship of the kingdom there is no place for sectarian rivalry, group antagonism, moral superiority, or spiritual infallibility.

"This process of cultural transformation...is what we are now observing in our society....While the transformation is taking place, the declining culture refuses to change, clinging ever more rigidly to its outdated ideas; nor will the dominant social institutions hand over their leading roles to the new cultural forces. But they will inevitably go on to decline and disintegrate while the rising culture will continue to rise, and eventually will assume its leading role. As the turning point approaches, the realization that evolutionary changes of this magnitude cannot be prevented by short-term political activities provides our strongest hope for the future." (Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point)

Daniel Yankelovich in his exhaustive sociological study, New Rules, says that we are marching to a new beat; we cannot turn back the clock; we are entering a new age of society. He found that people are fed up with the selfish, individualistic preoccupations of the 1970's and hunger for commitment to truth and service. Marilyn Ferguson in The Aquarian Conspiracy documents the many facets of this personal and social transformation of consciousness in the 1980's.

Dr. George Gallup in a talk at Princeton Theological Seminary a couple of years ago said, "Americans today appear to be on a spiritual quest of major proportions...the final two decades of this century could, in fact, represent a unique chapter in the history of religion in the United States." I believe that he may be correct in his observations.

The hour may be striking for a rediscovery of the true and original foundations of the present day institutionalized church when the pressures of contemporary problems will scrape off the barnacles of nineteen hundred years of its history and allow the life and teachings of Jesus to shape its faith and practice. As The Urantia Book notes, "Religion does need new leaders, spiritual men and women who will dare to depend solely on Jesus and his incomparable teachings...who will be exclusively devoted to the spiritual regeneration of men. And then will these spirit-born souls quickly supply the leadership and inspiration requisite for the social, moral, economic, and political reorganization of the world."