Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Looking Ahead by Looking Back

Matt Marino is an Episcopal priest who does ministry with youth and young adults in the Diocese of Arizona. As it turns out, I met him just this past summer at General Convention in Indianapolis, though the encounter had slipped my mind until he reminded me of it via Facebook message earlier today. I had contacted him on that medium to express my enthusiastic appreciation for a post that appeared on his blog last Sunday. I spotted the link on Facebook early this morning and immediately re-shared there and on Twitter. It's probably not accurate to say that it has gone "viral," but it has been passed around more times than I can keep track of, and always with unalloyed acclaim. I might add that this acclaim has come from an astonishing diversity of places on the familiar ideological spectrum, which I find more than a little bit interesting.

Father Marino's piece is primarily about the poverty of a particular model of youth ministry (and children's ministry as well) that is entrenched in the world of mega-churches and mega-church wannabes. His comments are right-down-the-middle-spot-on. I say that with some degree of verve because I managed to successfully euthanize "children's chapel" in two parishes where I was the rector, and have more recently discouraged the notion of "youth Sunday" in parishes of my diocese. Why? Because the Sunday liturgy is "owned" by all the baptized, and all the baptized, including children and youth, should have a stake in it. That can't happen if they're not there.

What had me doing backflips, however (I speak metaphorically; don't be getting a visual) was this penultimate paragraph:
Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.
Anyone who's heard me give my standard post-liturgical coffee hour stump speech in parish halls across the Diocese of Springfield for about that past year could be forgiven for thinking Matt Marino and I are intentionally singing off the same song sheet. We're not. But it is affirming to see that I'm not the only crazy person who thinks that the post-Christian culture we are presently careening into invites us to look a lot more closely at the practices of our Christian forebears in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. In my moments of immodest self-assurance, I'm tempted to exclaim, "Somebody else gets it!" Of course, I'm fairly certain that I myself have not "gotten" it yet. But ... still.

As I've been pondering the whole challenge of the church's response to secularization (which, with a particular focus, Fr Marino's blog post also ponders), I'm now just about confident enough to say it outright: the Sunday Eucharist is not for visitors or guests in general, and certainly not for "seekers." We need to stop thinking of the Sunday Eucharist as a potential new member's first point of contact with the Christian community. That is a huge horse pill for us to swallow, because it contradicts all of our instincts; it is completely counter-intuitive. But if we look at that horse pill askance, that's a sign that we're still mentally in Christendom, and have not downloaded the new post-Christendom mental map. Making our buildings and services more "welcoming" to visitors made perfect sense in the old order, when not everybody went to church, but most everybody at least had a particular church that they didn't go to. It is close to completely incoherent in the post-Christian world.

The truth is, if a visitor walks into the Sunday Eucharist "cold," with the little or no prior knowledge of Christian faith or Christian worship, and does not find what goes on confusingly boring at best, and quite possibly offensive, then we're probably not doing it well enough! We've probably unwittingly dumbed it down, pandering to perceived "market" sensibilities.

So, yes, as Matt Marino says, the invitation before us is to make the mental shift from "they come to us" to "we go to them." The invitation before us is for our celebrations of the Eucharist to have more integrity and vitality than ever, not so they can be more attractive to newcomers, but so the baptized faithful can be adequately fed and energized for the work of mission and ministry in the world. None of this will be easy. It runs counter to anything most brands of Christian, especially my own, have any accumulated experience or wisdom about. A friend remarked to me today that the advent of the post-Christian era is either a catastrophe or an opportunity. If we deny it, and live mentally in a bygone time, it's a catastrophe. But if we acknowledge it, and gear up for bearing witness to gospel in the actual world we live in, letting go of the privileged status we are still tempted to think is owed to us, it can be a tremendous opportunity.


St Michael's Episcopal Church said...

Amen! It's what I've been trying to articulate for years.

Undergroundpewster said...

He gets it.

Beth said...

"We need to stop thinking of the Sunday Eucharist as a potential new member's first point of contact with the Christian community."

I don't think I've heard anyone put it quite that baldly, but what a great way to describe the reversal of direction we need. Wisdom. Let us attend.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

There are two problems with the challenge of NOT thinking of our Sunday Eucharist as "a potential new member's first point of contact with the Christian community". First, when most people think of going to church, Sunday mornings are when they think we're "open for business." Second, some churches don't have folks with enough time or energy to do more than Sunday morning. That pretty much then guarantees that those churches will die.

I'm not saying that you are wrong, just that under this reality, many churches are doomed.

Anonymous said...

As you note, Tom, churches with that little energy or vision will likely continue down the road of decline.

In times of change, those who cannot or will not adapt are put in a very difficult position. A glance at the historical record shows this to be the norm, not the exception. It can--and will--happen to us.

The spiritual environment is not what it was. Continuing to see "church" as pretty much a Sunday morning gig misses out on the missional reality around us. It is also a caricature of both the best of Anglicanism and the Gospel's claim on the lives and priorities of disciples.

Those who are truly excited about the Gospel, will respond to its mission. Those who see being "Episcopal" as a lifestyle statement and not a total conversion of life will continue to dumb-down worship, teaching, and practice to the lowest achievable level for their aging congregations.