During the middle ages throughout Europe cathedrals sprang up, towering above villages, casting their shadows over the cities that had begun to emerge from the chaos of the Dark Ages. In contrast to the crumbing Roman structures that spoke of the past glory of the cult of Rome, these buildings were living manifestations of Europe’s fascination with the transcendence of God.
The building of a cathedral was a matter of great civic pride, their constructions by armies of artisans were high drama (as Keith Follet has illustrated all the way to the bank). The cathedrals were three dimensional teaching tools, they were medieval multi media presentations, evangelistic tools that attempted to woo and win over converts with their liturgical and architectural campaign of shock and awe.
To the contemporary missional thinker such an approach reeks of the dreaded concept of ‘attractionalism’. Cathedrals are seen as representing the worst of high medieval thinking in which the church was at the centre of culture and all were expected to come and pay adherence. Thus we are told that we are in a post-Christendom culture, in which the cathedral now operate as a kinds of spiritual museums. They are relics, they may be beautiful, but they are relics none the less. So the alternative to the ecclesiological arrogance of the cathedral/christendom approach we are told is to be missional, to ‘go’ rather than to expect people to ‘come’, to be sending rather than missional.
This approach makes sense, its advocates point to the way in which the non-western mission field has rightly redefined our understanding of the positioning of the Church. Yet the sending/missional posture can find itself seriously compromised if it thinks that the concept of the cathedral is dead in Western culture. In fact in comparison to the middle ages in which there were thousands of cathedrals, there are millions of cathedrals being constructed daily in our culture. They are not Gothic or Romanesque in construction, they are not made of stone and wood, rather they made of flesh. Or perhaps more correctly they are constructed in the psychic space that surrounds contemporary citizens of the 21st century developed world.
The individual now operates as a kind of personal cathedral. Social media arms and aids the growing sense of entitlement in the contemporary therapeutic self. The individual creates a facade that will shock and awe. An exterior that will garner respect and acknowledgement. If the medieval cathedral was an attempt to connect with a palpable sense of the transcendent, the contemporary self attempts also attempts to create a sense of transcendence through the correct assemblage of consumer experiences.
The difference between this and the medieval vision is that the contemporary cathedral of the self is religion free, instead it seeks to eek out transcendence in what David Brooks calls a ‘low-ceilinged world’. Instead of plainchant, stained glass windows and the drama of the liturgy, the modern self attempt to find transcendence in budgets breaks on the beach in Thailand, 3D movies, killer Ipad apps, and in the torque of a SUV.
The cathedrals of the 21st century self like their medieval counterparts demand that you come to them. They demand to be taken seriously. They insist on being the only show in town. Therein lies the danger for the missional church. The missional church which attempts to incarnate, which tries to ‘go to’; can find itself shifting from an attractional mode of church, to becoming enslaved to an attractional view of the self. Incarnation can quickly degenerate into syncretism for the missional operator who is unaware of the cathedral of the self.
Many missional leaders who have critiqued the therapeutic and individualist tendencies of the contemporary church growth movement, can easily and naively find themselves serving an even more pernicious expression of the therapeutic self as Church is completely taken to and rearranged around the habits, locales, tastes and wants of the individual in the name of incarnational mission.
The church moves into the cafe, the pub, the home, and the sporting club in the name of mission and as a protest against attractional concepts of Church. Yet the individual sense of entitlement is never truly challenged, there will be much focus on the immanent Jesus who is our friend, yet little emphasis on the transcendent ‘otherness’ of God who reminds us of our falleness and cosmic smallness. The huge danger is that whilst the incarnational, missional approach rejects the idea of the medieval cathedral, the cathedral of the self is never truly dismantled.