Suppose you were to take a church and begin tinkering. Make communion a symbolic, infrequent, irreverent sideshow. Stop teaching congregants the meaning of the Nicene Creed, or even reciting it for that matter. Don't celebrate the milestones of the Christian calendar-Lent, Pentecost, the Annunciation. Invert the balance of liturgy and lecture. Heck, dispense with liturgy altogether-or else make it so pale and lifeless that none but the most soul-deadened can bear it.
If you can't yet hear the foundation crumbling, speak of heaven and hell as mythical places. Let excommunication and church discipline fall by the wayside. In fact, now that you've made eucharisteo-thanksgiving, once the centerpiece and lifeblood of the church-an ancillary feature, where is the bite in excommunication anyway?
Yes, comes the rejoinder, but excommunication still means exclusion from fellowship.
Fair enough, we'll just eviscerate the church calendar. Fasts and feasts and weekly prayer vigils-all of these get swept out the door. Tell people there's no need to show up except for 50 minutes on a Sunday, and if that burden is too great, tacitly promise them that missing a few won't really matter because there's no theme or seasonality binding the sermons one to another. Instead, it's just uninspired lecture piled atop uninspired lecture.
Well now, some might protest, the pastor really can make a difference, even without all that ritualistic business.
That's a valid point, and one that must be dealt with. So what say instead of seminary and spiritual guidance, we send our pastors to "divinity schools" to be taught by puckish skeptics fond of writing tracts assailing the male hegemony of the church, or questioning Mary's virginity, or Paul's heterosexuality, or reveling in any other manner of twittery that inspires the second-rate intellect of the heretic too gutless to leave the institution he secretly despises.
What's the point of all this? Think of it like recreating the events that produced a crime scene, the crime in this case being an estimated one-in-six Dutch preachers denying the existence of God. It's not a phenomenon limited to the Netherlands, of course, but endemic across the dying Christianity of Europe. I don't know the figures for the United States, but if heresy and lifelessness are any guide, I daresay more than a few American pastors might fit more with the Dutch apostates than inside the dogma of Christendom.
Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood features a protagonist, Hazel Motes, who takes it upon himself to start the Church of Christ Without Christ. "I'm a member and preacher to that church," he announces to a street-corner crowd, "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way." Hazel knows people need church; he just doesn't want Jesus making demands and bleeding for the lost.
But the difference between Hazel and these godless preachers is that Hazel can't help but believe. Hazel is haunted by Christ, and by a sense of his own sin. In other words, there's still hope for Hazel's soul. May these preachers-and everyone else, for that matter-be so haunted.