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.