Monday, September 12, 2011

Inventing the Wheel, Discovering Fire

For my entire adult life (and I just turned 60), I have been passionately interested in the "marketing" of the gospel through and in the life of the church: What can the Christian community be doing to authentically and effectively commend faith and discipleship to those outside its numbers? Until I was around 40, I got to do this as a sort of deck hand and adviser to the skipper--whoever the skipper was for me at any given time. Since then, I've been a skipper. And now, to keep pushing the metaphor, I'm an admiral, with lots of people looking to me for leadership.

So, if I've been intensely interested in the subject until now--and I have been--the intensity of that interest is now in overdrive. 

Of course, I'm not alone. There's a mountain range of published material out there on evangelism and church growth. I've been an avid consumer of that material. I've read books and articles, listened to cassette tapes (see...I told you I've been doing this a while!), attended conferences and seminars, and had innumerable informal discussions with colleagues and parishioners. Anyone familiar with even a fraction of this material could be forgiven for telling me that my task is simply to spend some time reviewing it, poke around cyberspace for some of the most recent developments, and cull out the "best practices." (OK, that's one buzz word--"best practices"--that I'm sort of hoping has a short half-life, but I digress.) 

It makes sense. Why, as the saying goes, re-invent the wheel? 

Here's the problem ... or, actually, there are two problems:

Problem the First--the process of societal dechristianization has finally passed the tipping point. We've known this was coming, of course. It's been gathering energy for around 300 years. But there are signs that the speed of change is now taking off exponentially. Even as recently as my deck hand years, we assumed that we weren't dealing with absolutely cold prospects, but with people who had some basic knowledge of the Christian narrative, which needed only to be awakened, corrected, and nourished in order to come to fruition. Maybe that was true then--I think it probably was--but it surely is not now. (I will grant that there is some residue of Christendom in "Bible belt" pockets, but even these bastions are beginning to give way.) And it's especially not true among young adults--the coveted 18-30 year old demographic. We can spend a lot of angst speculating as to why this is so, and assigning blame, but the reality is there nonetheless. North American (and still less European) culture is no longer predominantly Christian. We can resist this development--angrily and futilely--or we can embrace it and get on with figuring out what it means for the way we "do church." I vote for the latter.

Problem the Second--the fleet in which I'm an admiral is a liturgical and sacramental church. This would have been a handicap even in the absence of Problem the First, and, I would suggest, explains a lot about the history of the development of the Episcopal Church in this country. But with things as they actually are, it's a double whammy. Why? Because it represents such a small segment of those who profess and call themselves Christian and who are also focused on packaging the gospel to get attention in a secular marketplace. (The Roman Catholics are, of course, liturgical and sacramental--and also gargantuan. But, unless I'm missing some critical signs, they are largely relying on the inertia of their present size and not strategically engaging the dissolution of Christendom. They will, IMO, soon be staring into the same abyss that currently confronts the historic mainline denominations, and will confront the Big Box evangelicals once the first generation of innovative leaders dies out.) In other words, those who are doing the research and developing theories and testing theories about evangelism and ministry in a secular culture are distinctly non-liturgical and non-sacramental. 

Obviously, I think this makes them rootless and systemically weak. There are reasons I am not a free-church evangelical! I believe in sacraments and historic church order. I think they're not only nice, but essential. But in the meantime, my rootless and systemically weak evangelical friends are also frighteningly more nimble and more adaptive and responsive to feedback than are the structures of the church in which I serve. They are at the wheel of a ski boat, while the craft I'm driving is a loaded supertanker doing thirty knots. What this means is that the practices that they might find successful in taking the gospel to the denizens of contemporary culture may not work for me. They can't just be adopted wholesale--not, at any rate, without either surrendering some of the core identity of a sacramental and liturgical church, or bending the strategy that I'm adapting so much as to compromise its effectiveness. 

There are, in fact, no proven and reliable "best practices" for evangelization by Catholic Christians in 21st century American culture. And I find that fact simultaneously daunting and energizing. Anyone who does not find being in uncharted territory frightening is probably not sane. By that measure, I am quite sane! At the same time, anyone who does not find being a pioneer exciting may not be fully alive. By that measure, I am very alive! The work we are beginning to take on in the Diocese of Springfield will break new ground. Whether that ground will yield anything--a crop? a gusher?--I don't know. We will probably fail at a lot of things before we succeed at something. But to shrink back from being pioneers is simply to consent to our continued slow death. It's hard to believe that this would please the heart of the God whom we serve.


mike8464 said...

Many of us in the pews ponder this as do my Lutheran friends especially evangelizing the Anglican message. If everyone is welcome without changing, then why come unless to meet your friends or you like the music or it is your Sunday morning habit. Over here in LA,we are asked politely to be liberal rights activists. We are not asked to see Jesus as our savior & redeemer in order to change our lives. Consequently we miss the young adults & the families. We also miss serious discussion about what the Bible means to us and how it will change our daily lives. We never discuss presenting ourselves as living sacrifices. We are very good at our meal gatherings, and very charming and intelligent.

Walt Knowles said...

"Proven and Reliable" are key words here. I agree that there aren't 21C models for those of us who see catholic order of great importance.

However, and that's a great big however, there are some crucially important pointers from early in our history. I think they are also proven and reliable. If we are willing to give up on the "christendom" that grew up under Rome in the 7-10C, we've got some incredible examples in the life of the north African and Iberian churches of the 4-6C. If we look at their models of catechumenate, of evangelism, and of inculturated worship, we won't see the ecological wastefulness of the overloaded supertanker (which I'm afraid is going at much lower speeds than 30 kts) nor a ski boat which can hold only a driver and spotter (and anyone else has to get their own boat), but a navis, a sailboat, as it responds to the wind of the spirit (and the skill and commitment of skipper and crew) can be both nimble and capacious.

Word and Worship, sacrament and outreach. Holding them together is a challenge, but it's both the challenge and the charism God has given us who claim katholikos as our moniker. Remember that the quintessential North African culture-crosser, Augustine comes up with at least 325 sacramenta and mysteria which span scripture to feeding the poor.

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Mike, as the current daily office lectionary reminds us, Elijah discovered, at his moment of highest discouragement, that not everyone in Israel had bowed the knee to Baal. Please email me privately if you'd like.

Walt, you are spot on. There are resources in our distant past that we can and must mine. And, once mined, the ore needs to be processed and refined and otherwise made practically useful. Some are doing this. I was a catechumenate wonk thirty years ago! But I'm afraid that such efforts have not yet reached critical mass.

Walt Knowles said...

I'll send you the paper I'm doing for Louis Weil's Festschrift as soon as the paper is done. It's just that sort of mining.

Fr. Bob said...

Bishop - I think you are right on target. You’re two points support what I’ve found to be true through my investigation, except for one aspect of point two. I think the “sacramental and liturgical” are well suited to appeal to the emerging generations even as they are more ignorant than not of the things of Christ and the Church.

What I hope to achieve through the Imago Dei Initiative/Society is finding those "best practices" within the Catholic form. We are having success within the parish I work out of, and it is an Anglo-Catholic parish.

Coming out of Evangelicalism, the drive for the "next new thing" can drive the organization crazy - and the people. Yet, they do a far better job than we do in engaging the changing contexts of the culture, even if badly.

My hope for the Imago Dei Society is that we can be a resource for the entire Church as we learn what can be learned and appropriately apply those things to our liturgical and sacramental tradition.

I wish you well as you delve into the challenge.

Gerry Smith said...

Bishop Daniel, as a member of the Diocese of Springfield, I am excited to hear more about your vision!

While I also believe in sacraments and historic church order, I am curious as to what you mean by these being "essential". Are they essential in terms of salvation or essential in terms of maintaining the church as relevant in the secular world.....or possibly something else?

Daniel Martins said...

I don't mean "necessary for salvation" in any formal theological sense. I would, however, argue that traditional Catholic church order is essential for the fullness of the Church's life and witness. If you're into reading and can find a copy of A. M. Ramsey's "The Gospel and the Catholic Church", he does a beautiful job making this case. (Ramsey wrote this as a young theologian in the 1930s, but went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury in the 60s and early 70s).

Gerry Smith said...

Thanks for your helpful clarification of what you mean by "essential" here. I do concur with you on this point, and I did not presume that you were referring to essential in a salvific way in your post.

Thanks also for the book reference! I will look for this book to add to my reading list and pray that I will actually follow up an read it!