Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Please Don't Invite Your Friends to the Eucharist: Being Church in an Unchurchy World

This is the text of a talk I gave at a public event at St Andrew's Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi this evening.

What an honor to be with you here tonight. I've flown in and out of Jackson airport once before, and driven through the city several times over the years, but this is my first opportunity to actually be in Jackson, and I'm grateful for it.

I'm actually going to begin by asking for a silent show of hands on a couple of things. I want to see whether my intuition about these questions is correct. How many of you have heard or said any of the following?

·       Our church is slowly dying. We've got to find a way to get more people through our doors on Sundays.
·       We're losing our young people to the megachurch up the road because they have a rock band providing their music.
·       I don't really go to church, but St Swithun's is the church I don't go to.
·       Episcopal? I've never heard of it? Which religion is that?

Sometimes I'm in a position—usually either getting a haircut on donating blood—where somebody feels like they need to make conversation with me by asking what I do for a living. Now, when I first began my ordained ministry, back in the late 1980s, in south Louisiana, I would routinely answer, "I'm an Episcopal priest," and that would pretty much work. But our culture has changed; our society has changed. For anyone under the age of 40 or so, I no longer have any confidence that they would even understand that "Episcopalian" is one of an array of brand names by which Christians sort themselves out. So I'll begin to answer that casual question by asking, "Have you ever heard of the Episcopal Church," and if they answer Yes, I'll explain that I'm the bishop who covers the Episcopal churches in central and southern Illinois. But if I just get a blank stare, I'll fall back to the British royal family and, you know, William and Kate's wedding in Westminster Abbey. And if they smile and say, "Yeah, I saw that on TV," then I'll say, "Well that's us. We're that church," and then hope that the young woman cutting my hair isn't looking for a place to get married and thinks that an Episcopal church will let her have potted trees in the nave during the ceremony. But ... if I strike out on the royal wedding question, I really have nowhere else to go. Short of going into a long and technical explanation, which they're not really interested in, because they were just trying to make conversation, I have no cultural footholds, no societal grammar, that I can exploit to explain succinctly what I do for a living. So sometimes I make a joke about “Episcopal” being an anagram of “Pepsi Cola,” and leave it at that.

Now, I realize that, in the deep south, the evolution of our society may not have gotten quite to that point. I'm given to understand that there's still a fair amount of dressing up and showing up for church on Sunday mornings in places like Mississippi. But that's only a reprieve, I’m here to tell you, not a pardon. It's only a matter of time, and probably not very much time, before church affiliation disappears as a routine assumption in southern culture, just like it has in the rest of the country.

The fact is, I would bet that, even right here in Jackson, we could all fan out from this cathedral church and knock on doors asking, True or False: Easter is about Jesus walking out of his tomb, and if he sees his shadow, that means six more weeks of winter ... and the majority would say either True or "I don't know." Fifty or sixty years ago, baptismal certificates were accepted as proof of age for purposes of school registration. Churches and clergy were presumed to be pillars of our society, strengthening the social fabric (and therefore deserving of tax breaks and other courtesies). Now, clergy are presumptively shady characters, and city councils and neighborhood associations consider churches to be leeches on municipal infrastructure and the tax base, a drag on society rather than an asset. Churches now have to compete with organized athletic and other events for the attention of kids and families on Sunday morning. 

What we are experiencing, my friends, is not just a natural cycle, not just a pendulum swing. There is a mountain of evidence—still growing—that we are well into a monumental sea-change, not an organic evolution, but a tectonic shift of the sort that happens only every several hundred years. I would argue that the change we are in the middle of will turn out to be more significant than the Reformation of the 16th century. In fact, we need to go back about 1,700 years, to the early 4th century, to find the other bookend.

Christianity, as you know, began in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. But, precisely because of the Roman Empire, that area of the world was largely at peace, and, by the standards of the time, there was an excellent road system (a better road system, actually, than there would again be in Europe until the 18th century). So Christianity spread rapidly, attracted the attention of the authorities, and soon came under successive waves of persecution, some of it deadly, that would continue for nearly 300 years. But then, Constantine, the emperor, had a vision one night, and Christianity soon became not only legal, but, within a generation, the official religion of the Roman Empire. In the seventh century, Islam eclipsed much of the Christian world, so the focus shifted to Europe. And, in Europe, for the next millennium and a half, there was what came to be called the Constantinian synthesis, “Christendom”—a hand-in-glove relationship between the church and secular society. They might struggle over which was the hand and which was the glove, but there was no argument over the close relationship. To be a citizen was to be a Christian, and to be a Christian was to be a citizen. 

But, beginning in the 18th century with an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment, the Christendom started to slowly unravel. (One could argue that it actually began in the Renaissance and the Reformation, but, in any case, certainly by the Enlightenment.) In the final decades of the last century, the process of unraveling picked up speed at an exponential rate. The moorings linking western culture to Christianity have come completely undone. Just as ancient paganism found itself engulfed by the rising tide of Christianity, so now the last flickering of Christendom is being doused by the rising tide of ... well, it's hard to say what, precisely, but I'll offer—as a sort of placeholder—secularism and radical individualism, particularly the latter. That's fast becoming the dominant, default intellectual mindset of our culture. Some might want to call it post-modernity, but the upshot is this: the expression, "It works for me," is our society's slogan. Ideologies are evaluated according to their utility, and utility is defined as whatever increases personal autonomy. The majority opinion in the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage drinks deeply from this well in the assumptions it makes about the nature and purpose of marriage.

So, as I see it, we—the is, the Christian community—have three options as we assess the tsunami of "post-Christendom" that is already engulfing us. First, we can deny that it's happening, and treat it as just a phase that our culture is going through, and that everything will get back to "normal" a few years from now, as a natural cycle plays itself out. I might be surprised, but I doubt there's anyone here who would take such a position. I certainly would not. Second, we can resolve to resist it, to stand firm against the barbarians as they proceed with the sacking of Rome. This is the tack taken by most of the so-called "religious right," those who use language like "Let's take back our country for God." I suppose this might result in minor victories in "battles," but we will still lose the war. Finally, we have the option of embracing the change that is already upon us, and seeing it as the greatest missionary opportunity for the Church of Jesus Christ since the Day of Pentecost. As you can probably tell, this is the response that I advocate.

What would "embracing" the secularization of our society look like? Well, for starters, it would look like something that the working title of this talk alludes to: Please Don't Invite Your Friends to the Eucharist. Now, that's an expression that is intentionally provocative. I hope it makes you uncomfortable! I'm going to unpack it a bit presently, but it's clearly meant to be a metaphor for a rather thorough shift in attitude away from an "attractional" stance toward mission and in the direction of an "apostolic" stance. In other words, instead of focusing our attention and energy on trying to get "them out their" to drive to our parking lots on Sunday mornings and walk through our beautiful red doors and join "us in here" for worship, we camp out in their neighborhoods, build relationships around mutual interests, and earn the privilege of talking to them about their ultimate concerns, whatever it is that keeps them up at night, which is the context in which we can credibly introduce them to Jesus. That, my friends, is a long way from business-as-usual for Episcopalians. 

So I would like to tell you a story to illustrate what I'm talking about. It's a story that I shared with my diocese about four years ago. I believe it’s a true story, though I can’t be certain because it takes place in the future. So, we’ll see.
Anyway, Lisa and Jeff live outside of Sharpstown in Jones County, Illinois—check me out, there are no such place names in Illinois; the names had been changed to protect the unsuspecting—about 14 miles from the county seat city of Pinehurst. Jeff works in his father’s retail farm implement business, and will one day own it; Lisa works in a local beauty parlor. They have two kids in high school, which can get a little expensive, so a couple of years ago they found themselves in nearly $50,000 of revolving credit card debt. It seemed that they just weren’t very good at managing their finances. Through one of Lisa’s hairdressing clients, they heard about a series of seminars being held down at the VFW Hall. They were feeling just vulnerable enough that they were willing to accept help from just about any direction, so they attended the meetings.
Doing so not only turned their financial life around—now their debt is less than $20,000, they’re living within their means, and they’re looking forward to actually opening a savings account—not only is their financial life turned around, but they made some new friends who were also part of the group. What Lisa and Jeff learned about halfway through the financial management series was that it was sponsored by St Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Pinehurst. Lisa’s client, in fact, the one who told her about the seminar, is a member of St Gabriel’s.
Now, Lisa’s parents were Methodists when they themselves were kids, and Jeff’s were Roman Catholics. But neither Lisa nor Jeff ever had any experience with any church, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, where the religious talk never made any sense to them. But a couple of their new friends from the financial seminar invited them to a come to a group meeting in their home, right there in Sharpstown. There was some good food, good fellowship, some conversation about the big issues of life, and always a short prayer at the end, led by the host couple, Julie and Mark. Jeff and Lisa were a little skeptical at first, but they really liked the people, and found that they enjoyed exploring the spiritual dimension of their lives, which they had never really done before.
After about three months of coming to these week night home group meetings, there was a special visitor. Julie introduced him as Father Cliff, the priest from St Gabriel’s. Over dinner, Lisa and Jeff learned that Fr Cliff actually had a day job as an administrator at Pinehurst High School, and took care of St Gabriel’s in his “spare time.” At the discussion time, Fr Cliff informed the group that he had rented the VFW Hall on every other Sunday night beginning the following month, and wanted to know whether anyone in the group would be interested in joining him for a simple service of worship and instruction—a little music, some prayers, and a time of teaching about the basics of Christian faith, and, of course, some food. For those who continued to be interested, this could lead to baptism. On their way home that night, Jeff and Lisa agree that they would begin to attend those services.  
So they do. And they find that they actually enjoy the experience. Much to their surprise, they begin to pray, on their own, at home. Not too much, but some. They also find that their relationship with their kids begins to be a little less stormy, and is sometimes even a little sweet. Nobody knows quite why, but both parents and kids are happy about it. The kids begin to join their parents at the VFW Hall on Sunday nights.
This goes on for a couple of years. The VFW Hall meetings are now held every week. Their oldest child is now away at one of the state universities. It’s fall, and Fr Cliff begins to gently raise the question: Who feels ready for baptism? By this time, there are over 20 adults in the group, none of whom had any previous ties to a church. To Fr Cliff’s delight, the response is, “We thought you’d never ask!” So the instruction becomes a little more intense. They begin to read more scripture in their worship. By this time, both Jeff and Lisa have each gotten hold of a Bible for their own personal use, so they notice that the passages of scripture that are read are not chosen randomly, but follow a pattern. Some people from St Gabriel’s quietly begin to show up and assist Fr Cliff with the teaching by leading small group discussions. New songs are introduced in their worship—songs with unfamiliar language and vocabulary that the catechists need to explain the meaning of—and the group is taught to give responses to various things the leader might say.
At the beginning of December (or, as the group is told, “Advent”), each of the candidates for baptism is paired with a sponsor from St Gabriel’s, someone who listens to them and prays for them and emails them and talks by phone at least weekly. About ten weeks later, at the beginning of Lent (which Jeff remembers his Catholic grandmother talking about, though he never knew what it was), the 20 candidates solemnly sign their names in a special book that has been prepared for that purpose, as their sponsors vouch for the fact that they have been faithful in attending worship and instruction, and have lived in the world in a manner worthy of a follower of Jesus. Fr Cliff and the other catechists begin to mention something called the Eucharist, though whatever they say about it is kind of vague, and they never teach about it directly. But Jeff and Lisa and their other friends get the distinct impression that it’s pretty important, and that, after they are baptized, it will be a regular part of their experience.
Then, on the night before Easter, a bus appears in the VFW Hall parking lot, which takes everyone to Pinehurst, and St Gabriel’s Church. They’re ushered into the back of the church and given a hand candle. It’s very dark. A lot of scripture is read, and the passages are very long. But the catechumens have heard them all before. It is in these stories that the gospel has been explained to them: the Creation, the Flood, Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac, the Exodus, the Valley of the Dry Bones. Then their sponsors present them to Fr Cliff, who is dressed up in a way they’ve never seen him before! He asks them if they renounce the ways of this world, and if they promise to follow Jesus as Lord. Then the whole congregation says the Apostles’ Creed with them and answers some more questions. Then, one by one, Fr Cliff baptizes them, and pours oil over them—generously—and tells them that they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Then, for the first time, they give and receive the Sign of Peace, and finally, are actively present as heaven and earth are joined and death and life become indistinguishable from one another, and they dine on the Body and Blood of him whose true members they have now become.
The next Sunday, they gather for the Eucharist once again, only this time back in the familiar VFW Hall in Sharpstown. The Bishop is there, somebody they’ve only heard rumors about until this point! He leads them in a discussion about becoming their own Eucharistic Community, and, together, they decide on a name: the Church of the Advent, Sharpstown. And so it goes.
I haven't described anything that I expect will take place precisely as I have told it, so I hope you get the gist. And I'll also try and tie things together here and now, in a more prosaic fashion. This will take the form of five concluding points:

First, the Church we are becoming will no longer be supported by the social structures we were once accustomed to and dependent on. These include a presumptive respect for churches and for clergy, an expected seat at the public policy table, non-taxable property, clergy income that is tax-privileged ... you get the general direction.

Second, the Church we are becoming will no longer be able to assume that those around them in society have a basic knowledge of the Christian narrative that they absorb just by being part of the culture. I want to add here that I consider this a supremely good thing, and pray for the day to be hastened. The day we have some real blank slates to work with, rather than people who think they know what Christianity is, but really don’t, and have therefore rejected a cheap knockoff of the real thing—the sooner that day arrives, our evangelistic task will get a whole lot easier.

Third, the Church we are becoming will be made up of committed, well-formed, disciples who are ready to engage apostolic mission. You have to be a disciple before you can be an apostle, so let's be about making more and better disciples, shall we?

Fourth, in the Church we are becoming, the Eucharist will no longer be our "front door," the entrance to the railway station, but, rather, several stops down a line that includes connection, evangelization, formation, and initiation (that is, baptism). [Incidentally, this will render the current controversial conversation about offering Holy Communion to the unbaptized completely moot, because, as we saw in the story about Jeff and Lisa, people won't even see the Eucharist until they are baptized.]

Finally, the Church we are becoming will not concern itself with conforming to society and culture, or following society and culture, or gaining the approval of society and culture—and still less with being on the so-called "right side of history." Rather, we will be focused on being an alternative society and culture, modeling in our own life together the values of the coming Kingdom of God, and saying to the world, "If you want to know what's comin' down the pike, look at us!" 

It's an ambitious vision, I will grant you. It involves leap-frogging over the last 1,700 years of Christendom and learning some "best practices" from our forebears who knew how to be a church in a non-churchy world. We can't replicate everything they did, of course—their context was pre-Christian and ours is post-Christian—but there's an awful lot we can learn from their experience. In the meantime, let's start building the infrastructure that will relieve the Sunday Eucharist of a duty it was never designed to perform—being our front door, our show window, to the world. Instead, in the spirit of Eugene Peterson's translation of John 1:14, let's "move into the neighborhood" and bring Jesus with us.


Anonymous said...

You are suggesting strongly - for an Institutional application - that what the Church will have to suffer as demise (all the churches, not just mainlines, and not just our denomination) will be crucial for the freedom of a new dawning of Christian apostolic mission resulting in the fruit of a new harvest. And the Holy Spirit will be right there guiding, building and empowering the explosion.
Given the consistent statistics of membership and ASA decline and the confirming signs of structural disintegration, I believe it to be two generations from right now. We will most likely not be around. But just to affirm, what we have to offer and articulate now until then, such as the vision that creates the substance of your talk, will be crucial to what is rebuilt for the Lord from within the ashes of the Church that crashes.

Daniel Francis said...

I agreed with most of what you said, before and after your swipe at the intellectual underpinnings of the Marriage Equality argument. Which is based on the dignity of persons only because conservatives like yourself have failed to convince them that allowing Same-sex Couples to marry would lead to societal breakdown and an epidemic of barren wombs. A point no doubt, you'll never concede if all goes well as far as that's concerned. ANd without a convincing argument that this will occur, you can;t keep a minority from the institution of marriage based on your discomfort with it. I was going to mention procreation, but I'm sure you're aware of why mentioning it as essential to marriage as an institution is a fallacious argument.

It made me think about your wider point about how we're going to reach out to others as Episcopalians. Frankly, there is a lack of commitment on the part of many more Liberal Episcopalians to evangelism, so it will be up to those who value such things to do the work that you've described and hope to drag the church along with our success. But as you go into the community, the place that LGBT individuals have in the fellowship you are asking them to become a part of will determine whether they even consider you or the Good News you want to share. Cause if it isn't Good News for Gay people and their families, they won't see it as Good News at all.

It frustrates me to think that so many evangelism minded Episcopalians would squander their opportunity to reach others for Christ by continuing to deem the relationships of LGBT people to be inferior, destructive, and disordered. Thus leaving the only representatives of the Church to have influence in the community people who are barely interested in Evangelism.

That's really sad to me. But I pray that the outcome might be different. I think their are a lot of young people in the church who welcome your message and welcome LGBT relationships and families. And I hope enough of them will come together, not dismissing the other things people like yourself have to say, and get back to the work of Christ in this world.

Anonymous said...

"get back to the work of Christ in this world."? You mean, the same Christ who said: "Did you not know that it is written, In the beginning God created them male and female? For this reason, a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." I'd say Bp. Dan, by standing for the truth and simply living out and teaching what Christ taught, IS doing the work of Christ in the world.