Monday, June 27, 2011

On Mission

I made a sort of cameo appearance at the triennial Episcopal Youth Event this past week, spending about 24 hours on the campus of Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minnesota (suburban St Paul), about one-quarter of the entire length of the conference. We had two young people and an adult leader from the Diocese of Springfield there, and it was a not-to-be-passed-up opportunity for a bishop to be with them in such a setting and share some of their experience.

And what an experience it was: There were some 900 bodies in the Great Hall for the plenary sessions, with lots of rock concert ambience, an incessant tsunami of youthful energy, incredibly gifted adult leadership, and--if the two I heard are indicative--engaging speakers who are able to communicate effectively with teenagers. It's a good thing that we do this; it's a good thing that we sent kids from the diocese (I hope we send more next time); it's a good thing that I took the time to join them (perhaps I can stay longer next time). Kudos to EYE.

The theme was mission. Not a bad theme for a youth event. For most of us at that stage of life, it's all about activity and experience. We want to be doing stuff. It's also a little less difficult to inspire idealism than it is with those who've had more opportunity--just by living longer--to be jaded by the changes and chances of this life. I can remember being that age, and I can remember being inspired to mission by youth leaders, especially at times when we were gathered with our peers away from home--with lots of singing, lots of socializing, and lots of teaching. It's powerful stuff.

In the Christian tradition that I was raised in, mission pretty much meant one thing and one thing only: evangelism. Bringing others to Christ. That's what missionaries do. If what weighs on your mind is the thought that anyone who dies without having made a conscious "decision for Christ" will immediately be consigned to endless sensory and mental torment, that's a pretty potent reason to sublimate any other missional concern. And when one's understanding of God's redemptive activity becomes more--shall we say--generous in scope, the range of mission begins to broaden.

And broaden. And broaden still more.

So I hope I'm not being just cranky here. My intent is to reflect critically ("critically" in the best sense, not with animus) on how I'm hearing mission characterized these days, including in the two addresses, and some of the songs, that I heard at EYE.

In couterpoint to the restrictive mission-equals-evangelism notion that we get from--appropriately enough, perhaps--those who would call themselves evangelicals, here are the bullet points of what seems to be the regnant narrative among contemporary Episcopalians:
  • Creation is pervasively wounded. The sign of this woundedness is the degradation of our physical environment in such phenomena as climate change. The social dimension of creation's woundedness is seen in poverty, racism, discrimination, and the structures of injustice, greed, and fear that abet such conditions.
  • God has a dream of a world that is restored both physically and socially. God's mission, therefore, is to bring about wholeness through the elimination of social injustice and environmental irresponsibility.
  • In his life and death, Jesus shows us both the infinite extent of God's love, and how to be truly human, to live authenically in the way God intends us to live--justly, humbly, lovingly, and responsibly.
  • Inspired by our faith in Jesus, we are called as Christians to join God's mission (it is indeed "God's mission", not "the Church's mission") of healing creation. 
  • As a concrete activity, "mission" entails serving the needs of others, advocating and working for the reformation of unjust social structures, and generally living in ways that support these endeavors.
I've seriously tried not to present a caricature here, so do let me know if you think I haven't succeeded.

I find this narrative ... well, the best word I can think of is "impoverished" ... as an account of Christian mission. There are two major reasons for this assessment, and then some lesser ones.

First, it lacks an evident and coherent connection with the Paschal Mystery. I use this expression (Paschal Mystery) as a shorthand for an event-word-symbol complex that includes the incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, glorification, ongoing high-priestly ministry, and anticipated return of Jesus the Word of God; i.e. that which underlies our celebration of the Eucharist, that which underlies our salvation. This is the core of the Good News. Mission, if it is to be understood as Christian mission, is rooted in the gospel, and there is no account of the gospel that is not anchored in and intertwined with the Paschal Mystery. We have nothing to say and nothing to do that cannot be pretty directly connected to "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."

Second, it lacks an eschatlogical dimension. That's not exactly a household word (eschatological), so let's briefly unpack it. Literally, the term denotes the study of "last things" (in Christian tradition: death, judgment, heaven, hell), the "end times." But itconnotes someting a bit more expansive and nuanced than it denotes; namely, that the fruition of God's redemptive purposes in the world, in human history, is accomplished by God's sovereign action, and that this fruition is not the summit of a gradual linear path, but, rather, something that follows on divine intervention of a sort that can, from a human perspective, only be described as cataclysmic. (See II Peter 3:10 for a graphic example of what I'm talking about.) 

From these (in my opinion) major flaws flow some lesser ones. One hears with increasing frequency the notion of "God's dream" for the world. It causes me to wonder how those who use this expression understand either God's sovereignty (one could say, one of God's very defining characteristics) and God's providence (i.e. God's sovereignty put into action). I can understand the intuitive visceral appeal of "God's dream," which makes it all the more problematic, because it is theologically incoherent. It is meaningless to speak of God having a "dream" because God does not operate in the realm of a conditioned or qualified future. Our eschatological hope as Christians is simply this: God wins. We know how the story ends, and there's not a darn thing any of us can do, either individually or corporately, no matter how many mission trips we might send our youth groups on, to either hasten or retard the day, or affect it in any way. Personally, I find that a word of hope and comfort.

For similar reasons, I am troubled by language that speaks of Christian mission as joining in an effort to "heal God's world." It's nothing new. William Blake's celebrated poem, set to stirring music by Charles H. H. Parry, a song that puts a lump in the throat of every patriotic subject of the British Crown (and other anglophiles, including the Bishop of Springfield), speaks of "Jerusalem" (as a metaphor for God's Kingdom of perfect justice, peace, and love) being "builded here," and the singers promise to not "cease from mental fight" etc. etc. until that happens. Well, that song is wonderful poetry and horrible theology. The same can be said for songs that say "God has no hands but ours," and the like (even JFK's line, "God's work must truly be our own"). It's not up to us to usher in the kingdom of God. God is perfectly capable of ushering in his own kingdom with or without our help. 

So ... here is a tentative proposed counter-narrative to the one that seems to be so pervasive:
  • The whole created order is under the thrall of sin and death. As a result, human beings are radically alienated from God and from one another.
  • God, in the person of Jesus, defeated the power of sin and death by his own death and resurrection. In so doing, he set in motion the inexorable process of redemption and renewal, making all things new.
  • Through faith in Christ, and participation in the life of Christ through word and sacrament, disciples of Christ form the community of God's "called out ones"--i.e. the ekklesia, the Church.
  • The mission of the Church is to announce to the world what God is doing, and in so doing to call all people everywhere to repentance, faith, baptism, and discipleship in the communion of the Church.
  • In service of this mission, the Church is called to order her interior life in such a manner as models to the world what the Kingdom of God looks like, to serve as a glimpse and foretaste of life in the Kingdom.
  • The pursuit of the Church's mission will necessarily include both works of compassion and kindness toward those who suffer or are in extreme need, ministering to the whole person. It will also include advocacy for social structures that are just and that are in accord with God's righteousness. 
As you can see (I hope), the concrete results of the currently ascendant narrative and the counter-narrative I have proposed will overlap in many ways. Both are consistent with mission trips to rebuild housing in the wake of natural disasters. Both are capable, I believe, of inspiring selflessness and dedication on the part of idealistic young people. One of them, at any rate, lets God be God, and takes account of the broad sweep of gospel witness and Christian tradition.

Maybe I'll be invited to be a plenary speaker at the next EYE. (Or maybe not.)

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Transdermal Evangelism

While one might debate whether it's just another example of making virtue out of necessity, given the sharply declining percentage of the U.S. population that defines itself as Christian (especially among young adults), the subject of evangelism (or, as the Roman Catholics call it--aptly, I think--evangelization) has a certain currency across denominational and ideological lines these days. There are lots of different methods, lots of different "schools" of evangelism. I'm not an academic expert on the subject, or any kind of expert, for that matter. So what I say here is not intended to be an exhaustive tome.

My working definition of evangelism: The presentation of the good news of God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ in a manner intended to draw people to repentance, faith, baptism, and discipleship in the communion of the Church.

In the ecclesiastical orbit in which I move--namely, Episcopalian--the evangelistic technique that I have heard mentioned most frequently over the last 35 years is, without a close second, "Invite your friends to come to church with you." At some level, I suspect, this has been voiced by well-meaning clergy who are trying to relieve their parishioners of the morbid dread they experience when they contemplate the possibility of actually talking to somebody about God. Don't even worry about it; just invite them to come to church, and maybe they'll see or hear something they like, and want to come back. Before you know it, they'll be on the Altar Guild rota, and you won't even have had to engage them at the level of their spiritual needs.

There's a certain admirable logic and consistency to this approach. After all, did Andrew talk to his brother Simon about Jesus all night? No, he simply brought Simon to Jesus, made the introduction, and let Jesus take it from there. We could do worse than to follow such an example. After all, as sacramental and liturgical Christians, do we not believe that Jesus is uniquely present in the eucharistic action? Do we not say that it is Jesus' own Body and Blood that lie on the altar as the congregation utters the Great Amen? What better thing could we do for those we care about than to invite them into such a Presence?

Here's where I think the logic breaks down: the Eucharist was never meant for the uninitiated. Our pre-Constantinian forebears (remember them? we're going to be getting to know them much, much better in the coming years) would be utterly gobsmacked by today's debate over whether the unbaptized should be invited to receive Holy Communion, because in their world, it was unthinkable for an unbaptized person to even be present in the same room while the Eucharist was being celebrated. The catechumens joined the faithful for the Liturgy of the Word, and then were dismissed following the sermon--dismissed with their catechists to further unpack the mysterium fidei as it slowly became clearer leading up to the Great Vigil of Easter at which they were baptized.

Fast forward to the 1950s and 60s (yes, when I was a kid): The default presumption was that everyone in America was some brand of Christian, unless you were in a place like New York, where the circle of expectations was expanded to include Jews. To be sure, some were more active than others, but everybody wore a label of one sort or another. (When I was rector of an old parish named St John's, I used to hear a lot of "I don't go to church, but St John's is the church I don't go to".) So if one of your friends or neighbors was inactive or unhappy, he or she was fair game for "Why don't you come to church with me this Sunday?"

Well, they still are, I would say. But it's a much, much shallower pond than it used to be, and continuing to dry up. Instead, we're looking at a cultural center-of-gravity that is astonishingly uninformed (or worse, misinformed) about even the most basic concepts of Christian belief and practice. Some are overtly hostile, but more are just benignly unconcerned; we're simply not on their radar. And inviting them to just come to church with us is like inviting a Harley-riding biker to come to a quilt show. It's not that the biker lacks the potential to appreciate the fine points of quilting, but there need to be a bunch of intermediate steps getting to that point.

The so-called "worship wars", but the way, are largely a consequence of this effort to make the Sunday Eucharist bear freight it was never intended to bear. Some souls readily intuit what's happening in the liturgy, but most do not. So there's contant pressure to tinker with the liturgy (usually fiddling with its music) to make it more accessible to those who know nothing about it, those who innocently impose their own cultural assumptions on the experience, and come away disappointed because the cat they just met meowed instead of barking.

Is there a "more excellent way"?

I believe there is, but it requires first having the courage to set aside the habit of thought that makes what we do in church on Sunday morning our show window to the world, the place where the Church's "product" is "merchandised" to potential "customers." And that's a lot more easily said than done, because it's a very, very, very deeply ingrained habit of thought.

If not through the "front door" of Sunday worship, then, where is the effective entry portal into the Christian community for someone who is beginning to experience spiritual hunger, but doesn't yet have the ability to name that as such, who doesn't yet have the vocabulary or the mental hooks by which to interpret what they're experiencing?

I suspect that what we need to find is a working side door. Or, to use a slightly different image, we need to configure our efforts at evangelization such that we create transdermal patches. A transdermal patch is a drug delivery system, but it doesn't use the main roads of oral ingestion or hypodermic injection. Instead, it makes a gentle and non-traumatic entry into the system, subtly infiltrating through the skin. An evangelistic transdermal patch probably looks like a social network--including cybernetic social networks, certainly, but, more importantly, human social networks with face to face interaction. Interaction, that is, probably not around concerns that would be immediately identifiable as spiritual or religious. Just real people being real to other real people.

Of course, this is already the context in which most effective evangelization already takes place. My point is that we need to become much more organized and intentional about it. The current generation of young adults may not know the difference between Easter and Groundhog Day (obviously, many do, but astonishingly many do not). But they are not immune to alienation, loneliness, cycnism, grief, despair, or just garden-variety boredom. We're probably not going to get them out of bed on a Sunday morning in time for a 10am Mass, wherein they might hear some pertinent homiletical words on those deep subjects. And if we did succeed in doing that, and if we're doing liturgy the way it should be done, we might just scare them off. But there are well-discipled Christians who are interested in mountain biking, or film noire,or fair trade coffee, or any one of a zillion things that people are interested in, and who can form relationships centered around those things.

I'm not talking about doing anything deceptive, surreptitious, or manipulative. If I want to start an organic gardening group (which I don't actually want to do, but hypothetically), I don't have to hide the fact that it's sponsored by St Swithun's Church. Most of them won't care, so long as no one makes them pray or sing or attend a bible study before they can harvest tomatoes. But when the teachable moment comes--and it does sooner or later for everybody, usually associated with adversity or tragedy--they will remember the bond they felt with the gardening group at St Swithun's, and that's when someone can explain about how Jesus walked out of his tomb and cared not a whit about whether he saw his shadow or not.

Then they can be enrolled as catechumens, and we can gradually show them that there is, in fact, a front door to the Church, and there's no way to avoid getting a little wet going through it.