Thursday, February 21, 2008

Is the institutional church REALLY dead?

Bob Burney thinks that pollster George Barna is mistaken in announcing that the institutional church is dead:
The “research” portion of the article at ends with the surprising number of pastors who are now embracing house churches. Indeed, Barna states that “two out of three pastors agreed that ‘house churches are legitimate Christian churches.’” (He adds that most of those pastors are from liberal, main-line denominations.) Barna then takes a swipe at those who disagree and implies that those pastors who do not support house churches are the ones making the big bucks from the institutional church. Where’s the objectivity evident in Barna’s past work?

I agree with Burney. There's a lot to be said for house churches and in some places the house church may be the only viable form. But the problem is that it is always someone's house in particular.

And one of two risks is run in that case. Either the homeowner loses all control over their house or stuff may happen that shouldn't - but it is, after all, a private home. So things that a regular church would not tolerate might be okay if the homeowner says they are okay.

I was for nearly three decades a member of a church that had an active "home group" component. For almost all of that time, I was a member of such a group. For several years I was even the "Group Life" deputy warden. So I am quite familiar with both the strengths and the weaknesses of home groups.

Basically, the strengths and the weaknesses tend to be the same qualities. That is, a strong leader can lead people toward or away from personal growth. And, whereas a religious institution like a church has longevity, a home group can bust up in a single evening, when things don't go as planned or someone acts out.

One thing that institutions provide is structure and - above all - healthy distance from leadership. Or, at least, that's what should be happening anyway. And if it's not, the institution can be held accountable. So, no, I don't think the institutional church is dead. I think that the house church movement will develop institutions to address the kinds of problems I outlined, and many others as well.

Neurolaw: Stephanie West Allen on its potential dangers

Stephanie West Allen of Brains on Purpose worries about "neurolaw" - a new specialty that attempts to fritz people's brains to discover the state of their responsibility in criminal cases:
As I have blogged before, neurolaw is fraught with danger and unsubstantiated promises. It overestimates what we can do, and learn about people, with the current state of neuroscience and leaves out some of the research that contradicts many of its assertions and predictions. Scary. I hope to promote critical thinking on the topic.

At the seminar on neuroscience and conflict resolution last week, I asked Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz to talk about the MacArthur Foundation grant to study neuroscience and law. He covered several of the problems that could result from research that leaves out much of the picture. (See my blog post for more.)

I think she is right to worry. With a $10 million dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation, neurolaw promoters can connect up with zillions of defense lawyers who would like to get their client off - just this once.

Fair enough, but ... at the price of leading the client to believe that one cannot control one's behaviour? One is trapped in crime? That's just not true for most people, and it has never done any good for those who believed it.

Choosing short term gratification as opposed to long term welfare is NOT evidence that we cannot control our behaviour. It is a decision - nothing more and nothing less. Sometimes it is a decision that ends in a fine or jail time. Otherwise, loss of friends, lovers, jobs, health, or life.

And so what if grandma WAS an ape?

Columnist Chuck Norris laments:
We teach our children they are nothing more than glorified apes, yet we don't expect them to act like monkeys. We place our value in things, yet expect our children to value people. We disrespect one another, but expect our children to respect others.

Hmmm. It seems to me that the mistake begins with the assumption that if we share a common ancestor with apes, we can make an excuse of that if we behave as they would.

What if you shared a common ancestor with a vexatious gossip? Should you gossip? If I share a common ancestor with a career criminal, should I commit crimes?

And when it comes to apes, any common ancestor that we share is so long ago now that it is most unlikely that our behaviour is in any way controlled by that relationship. If the theory of common descent is correct, we also share a common ancestor with horseshoe crabs and tyrannosaurs. So? What reasonable person would claim that that should affect our behaviour?

It all reminds me of a hilarious column by a rabbi on the common ancestry of the human, the monkey, and the banana ...