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Pope Francis: The Church Has Many Obsessions

09/25/2013 01:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2013
  • Steve McSwain Speaker, Author, Counselor to Congregations, Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World's Religions, and Spiritual Teacher

I was struck by Pope Francis' comments that "the Church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed..." But, of course, it has been and still is.

And, it is not just an obsession over gays, lesbians, and the transgender community. And, it isn't just the Roman Church that is obsessed. The majority of Evangelical churches are, just as are many of the Protestant churches still.

In fact, the Church universal is obsessed with the following...

1. The infallibility of scripture.
2. The imminent return of Jesus -- the Rapture.
3. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
4. The Jesus-is-the-only-way to heaven debate.
5. The celibacy of the clergy.
6. Women in ministry.
7. Homosexuality.

And, among some Christians, I suppose we should add the following obsessions...

8. America is God's chosen nation, just behind Israel.
9. Fox News is "fair and balanced."
10. Real Christians vote Republican.

I just had to add the bottom three. Virtually every ultra-conservative Christian I know and all the fundamentalist Christians I know would have a hard time separating themselves from 8, 9, and 10, just as they would the former 1 - 7, with the exception of number 5 among Evangelicals and Protestants and some Catholics.

In my own opinion, these obsessions have been the single greatest cause for the widespread, and continuing, departure of millions of thinking people, most all of whom still regard themselves as "spiritual but no longer religious," as in bothered by, attached to, or hoodwinked by organized religions.

Until these obsessions are released -- which is why I really do like our new Pope Francis, he gets it -- until they are released, expect the Church to continue its rapid decline.

What is most unfortunate -- I know this because there was a time in my life I tried very hard to exist within the ranks of fundamentalist Christians -- but, what is most unfortunate, is that you cannot gain headway with unthinking, closed-minded people. They regard the departure as a "sign that we're living in the end times."

Fundamentalist Christianity does not work. I'm not sure it ever did. It was Rick Warren himself who gave us that definition of a fundamentalist, too. As he rightly points out, there are fundamentalists in all religions and even among atheists. And, while fundamentalism, in his view, was once a good thing -- it meant getting back to the "fundamentals" -- today, a "fundamentalist is a person who has stopped thinking." I think it would be more accurate to say a fundamentalist is precisely that, not because they have stopped thinking, but because they have not started thinking.

What is most striking is that, among fundamentalists Christians, the obsessions above are almost universally accepted as the issues of greatest concern on the part of the Church. Further, on most of these issues, there is almost universal closed-mindedness.

It is this madness that is driving people away from the Church.

Instead of asking, however, why people are running away from churches faster than a squirrel will cross a busy street, most fundamentalist Christian leaders point to those leaving as if something were wrong with them. For example, in a recent frivolous article by Southern Baptist researcher, Thom Rainer, who said, "the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is that members attend with less frequency."

Really? Is that the best explanation you can muster? Surely, you do not believe that. Or, what kind of researcher would you call yourself?

I do not doubt that there are church members across all denominational lines -- even those devoted to the fundamentalist obsessions of their churches -- who attend with less frequency than they did even twenty years ago. It is the nature of the times. If Mr. Rainer and others think, however, that the widespread departure from the church can be explained by this simplistic nonsense, he and others have grossly missed "the handwriting on their own walls."

Pope Francis knows this. Besides, he's a Jesuit. The narrow-minded, unthinking priests of the Catholic Church do not normally gravitate to this religious order.

I am so hopeful with this Pope Francis. I pray for him frequently. Admittedly, he has not gone far enough. But he's already taken the Church farther in a few weeks than I would have ever imagined possible. How could I not be grateful?

Now, if the fundamentalist Christians in Evangelical and Protestant churches would be honest enough to admit the failure of their "obsessions" and get back to the real ministry of Jesus -- and, in case you do not know what that is -- start with Luke 4 -- the Church might just reverse its rapid decline.

The jury is out on that one. But we shall see.

One thing I know. When the Church gets Jesus right -- and, occasionally throughout history, it has -- the Church is a force for positive transformational change the world over.

Correction: In a previous version of this post, the author incorrectly identified Pope Francis as a Franciscan; Pope Francis is a Jesuit. The error has since been corrected.

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