Monday, November 14, 2016

The Three Conversions of the Christian Life


Christianity at its core is a religion of Conversion. The word conversion, as most of my readers already know, comes from the Latin conversio which means to turn, or a turning, especially a religious or moral turn of direction.  While this can begin with a significant event in a person’s life, such as Saul who became Paul on the road to Damascus, it most fully refers to an on-going process.  I would argue that conversion is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity and of the life of a disciple of Jesus.


Of course, we Episcopalians are not often the Damascus Road kind of Christians. Most of us prefer to think about ourselves more like Barnabas; quietly faithful folks who are kind and want to help and encourage others.  However, we do know that Christianity does begin with conversion.  Even when we baptize an infant, we believe that this child will have to come to a moment when she or he turns to their faith, claims it for themselves, and must take on what was promised for them in Baptism.



Over the years, I have come to understand that Episcopalians do not have a very clear understanding of conversion and what the process involves.  I believe it is one of the primary tasks of clergy to help our people understand conversion and what is being formed in us through this process. 



The place to start is with is the realization that Christianity involves more than accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord and certainly more than becoming a member of the Church. What we fail to understand is that Christianity actually includes three conversions. What do I mean by this? Let me lay out what I understand these three conversions to be.



Turning to Christ

There is, of course, a conversion to Christ – to embrace him as our Savior and to consciously choose to follow him as his disciple.  The Episcopal Church’s official definition of evangelism communicates this.  “Evangelism is to present Jesus Christ in the Power of the Holy Spirit so that men and women are led to accept him as savior and follow him in the fellowship of his Church.



All of the Church’s official and historical formularies, whether we refer to the Creeds or the 39 Articles or the Baptismal Covenant, affirm this definition.  In the Risen Christ we find both a Savior who by his death and resurrection has given us a new life and a Lord who calls us to a new way of living.  Dean Urban Holmes rightfully caught the fullness of this in his extremely important book Turning to Christ. 



In North America, Evangelicals often put most emphasis on the first part of this, “being saved.”  Some even say that this being saved is the main thing because it guarantees us eternal life.  They even equate salvation with eternal life.  Jesus and his early followers, however, called people to discipleship; following after Jesus in a disciplined and intentional way.  “Come and follow me” was both Jesus’ invitation and that of the early Church.  Making accepting Christ to be only about going to heaven is a serious theological fault and one that lessens the fullness of Salvation which begins when we do turn to Jesus.



Turning to the Church

For Christians, there is also a necessary conversion to the Church.  In the New Testament, the writers make no distinction between being in Christ and being a member of his body the Church.  Of course, following the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the idea of Christendom, we see the sad development that people can be members of the Church, but not really followers of the Christ.  In our time, it is safe to say that such “nominal Christianity” is a major obstacle to non-Christians experiencing the full reality of real disciples who have a converted life. 



This artificial creation of “membership” should not deflect us from the call to conversion to the Church.  Christianity is a communal religion.  It is meant to be lived in a meaningful and on-going accountable set of relationships with other disciples.  “You are the body of Christ” Paul affirmed, “and individual members of it.”  The organic image of the body of Christ that Paul uses for the Church is a powerful expression of life lived in mutual love with others.  When one suffers, then we all suffer.  If one rejoices, we all rejoice.  It is certainly true that much of Church and congregational life that we see today falls far from this ideal, but that does not negate the reality of what the Church is called to be.  One cannot grow beyond a certain point in the Christian faith without this conversion.



And this conversion is not to an “Idealized Church,” but to a local congregation of real human beings.  Yes, this means sinners with all our imperfections.  Yet, it is also true that it is in living into this calling to community that our path of holiness of life and our vocation to the world is grounded.  Bonhoeffer’s book Life in Community about the underground seminary that he led before his arrest by the Nazi’s is a testimony to the power of such a life.  There are many other examples of rediscovered community as a means of revival throughout the history of Christianity.  One need only think of Benedict or Francis to find how community brought a revival of the Christian experience. 



One of the encouraging signs of our age can be found among a movement of new church plants that take on this more organic calling of community.  Sometimes they take on names like “the Abby” or use “fellowship” or “Community” to express something deeper than the word “Church.” For these planters, Church has come to mean much that falls short of this conversion. Truthfully, many of our members see Church as more like a club of like-minded individuals.  The Church is not such an organization.  It is a called community.





Turning to Mission

Third, there is also a conversion to Christ’s Mission to our world.  Jesus told his disciples that “as the Father has sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” But how did the Father send the son?

God sent him to Love the world, to give his life for the world, to bring hope to the broken, lost, hurting and alienated of this world and to work as our Baptismal Covenant says, “For the dignity of every human being.”



I have known many in the Church over the years who genuinely seem to know Jesus and who are faithful Church members, but who are stunted in their spiritual growth because they fail to understand this third conversion.  Many Church members see acts of charity or participation in a ministry that touches hurting people as some sort of optional activity that some members might choose to take on.  Is this not what the word “outreach” often means? Yet, any reading of the New Testament makes it clear that to turn to Christ means to take up his work. 



And this work also includes working to have our world more in alignment with God’s Kingdom.  This is a Kingdom and Reign of justice and peace.  The early Christians stepped over every racial, ethnic, and cultural barrier to make Christ known.  Converts, who were slaves, women, outcast, and even some who were from the upper classes, lived, loved, and even died with one another.  It is true that the “blood of the martyrs were the seeds of the Church”, but it is also true that many saw how these Christians “loved one another” as a testimony to the transformative power of God to change lives – to convert the hearts of men and women.



Let me end this piece with a few observations that flow from what I have said about the converted life.



First, we often see people who have experienced one of these conversions, but not all three.  For example, some Evangelicals are good at proclaiming the conversion to Christ, but often take a very casual view of the Church, and almost no interest in the work of Christ’s mission among the poor and needy.  



There are also those who deeply love the Church, its liturgy and worship, the beauty of classical music, and even it organization and structures, but whom at the same time “know not Christ.” 



In our current setting, we must also acknowledge that there are many in the Episcopal Church among our Progressive leadership who are sacrificially dedicated to Christ’s Mission in the world, but who hold a kind of disdain for the local Church, and who forget whose mission this is, whose reign we proclaim, and for whom we do this work. 



The answer then is not to criticize those who hold such positions for after all they are partially right, but to fully embrace that Christianity must involve a three-fold conversion for the fullness of this new life to live in us.   All of us should seek a fuller turning to Christ, to his Church, and to his mission to this broken and hurting world?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Anglicans and Culture


Seeing the disputes, arguments, and disagreements among Episcopalians and other Anglicans in North America from the political and social divides of our society, between liberal and conservative, or in church language, progressive and orthodox fails to help us understand the different ways Anglicans view ourselves today.  I believe a better model is to remember Richard Niebuhr’s classic work on Christ and Culture and view our current situation in how we differ in the way we see our relationship to our culture.  

First, let me explore a little background to this issue.  1965 marks a significant year for Anglicanism in North America.  Historians often use this date as “the end of the Protestant Era.”  It marks the point in society were the assumption of a broad mainline Protestant consensus gave way to an emerging secular one.  Interestingly, almost all former mainline denominations can measure their numerical decline as starting in that year.  This is true of the Episcopal Church.  In 1965, the denomination reached its largest membership of 3.6 million.  From that year onward, it has been in steady decline with just under a million members today. The first decade and a half of this century has seen an accelerating decline of TEC and the formation of the Anglicans in North America (ACNA) made up of many former members of TEC and a coalition of varying Anglican spinoff groups.   

Before 1965 there were different styles and expressions of Anglicanism, high, low, and broad Church, but these still fit within the cultural context of the era and were mostly congruent with culture and an extension of historic Christendom.  While we Anglicans have never been the State Church in the U.S., we have understood ourselves to be the State Church of the highly educated including artists and political leaders.  Of course, another less kind way of saying this is that we have seen ourselves as the church of the cultural elite.  We were the Church of Presidents and the Country Club, and we remain the most highly educated denomination.  

Because of our close ties to higher education, Episcopalians are greatly influenced by the trends there, and especially those Universities that are the current cutting edge of secularism.  Hence the emergence of secularism deeply affected our sense of identity.  One only need remember the enthusiastic string of books in the mid 60’s that heralded this new trend, books like Harvey Cox’s The Secular City.  Of course, in light of the harsh realities for mainline churches in late 20th century, these books strike us today as simplistic and na├»ve.  

What then are the ways that Anglicans have differentiated amidst these immense changes?  I see that three dominant ones have emerged.
 

Chaplains to the Culture 

The dominant view at the present time in TEC is an attempt to extend the old role.  The Progressives of TEC are today’s traditionalists when it comes to culture.  They see our role as the Chaplains to the cultural elite.  Of course, it is now obvious that the cultural elite do not believe religion and especially the Church is important even if they embrace an interest in a kind of undifferentiated spirituality.  Perhaps Bishop John Spong best illustrates this understanding of the church.  He has proposed for years a non-theistic and  secular theology to replace our historic faith.  What he and others are doing is repositioning the Church to be the Church of Secularism.  This means that, like the University, our key concerns have become sex, gender, race, global warming, economic justice, and multiculturalism.   

Notice in all the controversy within TEC related to sexuality and gender, none of the leaders ever seriously thinks of doing away with Bishops, General Conventions and the present Church structures.  They believe that when women, gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals can be Bishops, the church is carrying out its mission.  It is giving a theological argument, or at least rational justification for the place of religion in such a society and the role of the Church.  After all, even a secular society needs at times Chaplains and Spiritual Guides.  This is the party in TEC that now controls almost all the political institutions of our church  Having gained ascendancy, they are pushing ahead with their view.  These folks are cultural adapters.
 

Preservers of High Culture 

There are Episcopalians and Anglicans who see the mission of the church as preserving high English Culture as expressed in the past Prayer Books and classical Church Music.  Many Anglo-Catholics fall into this category and so does the Prayer Book Society, some English Evangelicals, and many Morning Prayer traditionalists in our laity.  The best example of this group may be Prince Charles who is the patron of the Prayer Book Society in England.  The way he expresses it is that the language and aesthetics of the Church’s historic worship ennobles and raises society. It holds up something grand and beyond the mundane of every day.  Several of the continuing Anglican Churches are clearly in this camp.  In the days ahead, I predict that many of its advocates will find the Anglican Rite of the Roman Church attractive.  

However, there are many significant Episcopal congregations that remain vibrant and strong while following this model.  They clearly prefer historic forms of liturgy, often using only Rite I.  They offer outstanding classical church music.  Many support the work of liberal education through outstanding private schools.  The largest Episcopal Church in the U.S., St. Martin’s in Houston, follows this form of Anglican life.  I would also point out All Souls’ in Oklahoma City as another excellent strong congregation that offers much richness in this corporate style that attracts many new members.  Throughout TEC there are such examples and although their style often stands in stark contrast to the dominant view in TEC, their vibrant life gives testimony to the rich past they express.  I call this group the Cultural Preservers. 

Ancient/Future Missioners 

This last group has been emerging for the past thirty years.  They represent some of the fastest growing Episcopal/Anglican congregations.  These are Anglicans who draw on the ancient roots of the church in doctrine, practices, and principles, but are willing to use contemporary aspects of culture.  For example, they are willing to experiment with liturgy, music, and technology to reach un-churched people.  This has been a largely innovative and intuitive group.  Interestingly, the best spokespersons for this are often American Evangelicals who are on the Canterbury trail.  Robert Webber was a primary example of this, but there are many others.   

This group could best be described as Cultural Transformers in that they are willing to take aspects of contemporary culture and use it for their ends. In service of the Gospel, they would say.  This always brings a certain tension in that some adaptations may bring more of the current culture than the Gospel, but that has always been a tension between the Church and Culture in every age. Another issue is whether some expressions of current culture are simply not redeemable.  For example, do certain forms of hard rock music or Rap express sub-currents of violence and negativity to a point that they cannot be used in service of Jesus Christ?  Many would say they do.   Or another issue is whether contemporary music tends toward performance and whether performance is really an Anglican value in worship. Cultural Transformers have decided to live with these questions. 

Because of this willingness to use culture, they share much in common with the Global South’s versions of Anglicanism.  Anglican Churches formed in countries that were not part of or only temporarily part of the English Empire have to constantly adapt themselves to the cultural context in which they live.  The vibrancy of these Churches and their rapid growth give testimony to the importance of such a mission directed existence.  There are people in this group in almost every camp of Anglicans in North America today, many in the ACNA and The Mission.  This group uses modern elements of culture in service of Cultural Transformation.
 

Into the Future 

While I do not pretend to be able to see far into the future, I do think we can see some immediate developments for these groups.  There are now many groups in North America that claim Anglicanism as their heritage and express their identity through one of these three ways of being.  The ACNA makes an attempt to shepherd these groups into a common community, but within it, these different views exist amidst some tension especially over the role of cultural preservation and cultural adaptation.  Only the future will show if this coalition can stay together under some consensus of what it means to be Anglican.  Right now mutual anger and denigration of TEC gives them a kind of magnetic force field.  

And of course, I should point out that any individual Episcopalian or Anglican may, in reading these distinctions, find oneself identified with more than one.  In one sense, all of us have some hold of the Cultural Preservers in our DNA. Hence, I think the Cultural Preservers have the clearest task before them and they will find allies in a number of places.  This would include burned-out evangelicals, alienated Roman Catholics, and disillusioned conservative Christians.  To worship God “in beauty and holiness” is a very biblical concept and a very Anglican mindset.  The Church of the King James Bible and the 1662 Prayer Book has had tremendous effect and influence for those who speak the English language.  Of course, Cultural Preservation can become precious and arcane, but when one listens to present American public discourse, especially in politics and in entertainment, we can see the contribution such people can add to making us a more gracious, kind, and reflective community where thoughtful intellectual discourse takes the place of what we now like to call “reality.”  

TEC seems committed to becoming more strongly identified with the Cultural Adapters, Chaplains to the Culture, even though its institutional life is in serious decline.  It remains to be seen if a godless culture will have need for a church.  Many in TEC have placed their future in this direction finding common cause in anti-racism, environment advocacy, and multicultural (and multi-religion) inclusiveness and advocacy.  They see this as prophetic and cutting edge.  Forgive me when I observe that it is hardly prophetic and cutting edge among Progressive Democrats, and it plays out as extremely alien to many in the wider Anglican Communion.   

We will have to see if the children of these Cultural Adapters will wish to retain a Church among their causes and concerns. There is plenty of evidence that the children of many of the leaders of this movement have not. It is apparent that at the present time the current leaders of TEC have not found the tools and skills necessary to preserve its membership and offset the decline of congregations.  Many are hoping the new Presiding Bishop will bring energy to this task while holding to the passions of Progressives for a just expression of God’s Kingdom upon earth.  

The Cultural Transformers have work to do on their identity.  Yet within both TEC and the ACNA are a number of vigorous and growing congregations making new converts and disciples, and leading a major new church planting effort. Personally, I see among some of the 30 and 40 year old leaders of these churches real hope and future for our Communion on these shores. There are also new expressions of local community life with names such as Abby, Fellowship, and Community instead of merely “Church.”  These express a realization that Anglicans need a new way of living in relationship with one another on the local level and with other Christians.  In Canada, there is the work of Fresh Expressions bringing a renewed concentration on disciple making congregations as opposed to the historic concern with having members.  

What I hope that I have shown here is the polarization between liberal and conservative, or progressive and evangelical is a false dichotomy that does little to help these groups communicate with each other and among themselves. I hope that I have offered a better way of understanding our current situation and have pointed a way forward in discussing the work and mission of the Anglican Church in North American in the 21st Century. I am eager to hear what others have to say about these distinctions.   

Friday, November 6, 2015

On All Saints Day, I am Reminded that I vote with the Majority


 Several years ago, I was leading a workshop on New Member Ministry in a North East Diocese when I made a comment about formation of new church members.  I referred to the Nicene Creed as a summation of Episcopal/Anglican Doctrine.  To my surprise, a Canon of the Diocese interrupted me and said, “I don’t agree with what you just said.”  I became an Episcopalian and then a Priest because you can be an Episcopalian and believe whatever you want to believe.”  
Since I was not quite clear where the Canon was coming from, I said, “How do you square this with a church with a liturgy where every Sunday in almost every congregation we say the Nicene Creed?”
 
“Oh,” the Canon replied, “that is just there because it is a part of our history.”   

I paused for a moment and then said, “Well, you are wrong on this.  We have a section of the Prayer Book that has ‘historical documents’ in it.  The Creed is in our Eucharistic service as a summary of the Church’s teaching.

“Well,” said the Canon “You have a right to your opinion just as I have a right to mine.” 

Now I had several responses that I could have given to this dismissal of my statement, but I thought for a moment and realized that if the Canon actually believed everything I had just said was a matter of opinion then nothing I could add would make any difference.  I went back to talking about how to better welcome new folks.  I have, however, never forgotten this encounter because of the way that objective truth was negated by a person’s subjective opinion.   

As all Episcopal clergy should know, of course, the Nicene Creed was placed in our Prayer Book liturgy, before the sermon in early Prayer Books and after the sermon since 1979, so that any individual sermon would be proclaimed in the context of the Church’s wider teaching and doctrine.  I know this fact because scholars who have studied the Prayer Book liturgy have documented the editors’ intentions on the matter.  I had the privilege of doing my theological study during the publishing of the Prayer Book Studies which laid the framework for the 79 Book of Common Prayer.  So I read every one of the Studies.   

The placement of the Nicene Creed as well as the use of the Apostles Creed in Baptism and the placement of the Creed of Athanasius in the 79 book served a two-fold purpose.  First, they affirmed the Anglican Principle that only the Doctrinal positions of the undivided Church of the first three centuries could have universal authority among “catholic” (note small “c”) Christians.  As our theologians have often said, “We are a Creedal Church not a Confessional one.”  

Second, the presence of the Creed serves as an on-going connection to our apostolic origins as a living presence in today’s Church.  This second reason is based on the Anglican attitude toward Tradition.  Again, most of our clergy would know that the three sources of authority in our community (as attributed to Hooker) are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.”   

Over the years, I have often heard leaders in the Episcopal Church appeal to this “three-legged stool” as our authority which allows them to explain what modern “reason” has to teach us.  In doing this I usually note two things about their attitude.  First is that Reason (which meant for our forbearers “logic” or philosophically or scientifically information) seems always to be the most important leg of the stool.  So, for example, what we “know” today about gender and human sexuality triumphs anything the Scriptures have to say on this matter.   Hooker actually said it quite differently.  He said that the first authority is the Scriptures, then “What cannot be proven by the warrant of Scripture” should then be referred to Tradition.  And “What cannot be proven by warrant of tradition” should then be referred to Reason.  This is why we should never really refer to a “three-legged stool” since Hooker, who is our authority on this matter, clearly had a hierarchal view of these values.  
 
Second, anyone who listens today to what many of our leaders have to say about these matters must know that “Tradition” has almost no value whatsoever for them especially as it comes to what the Church has taught in the past.  Quite the contrary, when many of our leaders use the word ‘tradition’ they mean it in the same negative way one may speak of those who say “we never did it that way before” use the expression to veto any new or innovative ideas.  Tradition as it has to do with what vestments you may wear or what altar hangings you might put in place for Lent is fine, but Tradition in teaching is a constraining and confining arbitrary restriction to what Reason has come to understand.   

Now let me contrast this attitude to what Archbishop Michael Ramsey said on this topic.  “Traditionalism is the dead weight of the past; worshipping the past just because it is the past.  Tradition is the living presence of those who have going before.  It is the vote by those who are no longer present with us but who will be with us in the world that is to come.”  I have always thought that this idea of the vote “of those who have gone before” is a wonderful way to express the importance of Tradition.  So when a parishioner asked of his Eastern Orthodox Priest, “Do I have to believe the Creed?”  The Priest replied, “Oh my goodness no.  You do not have to believe it.  You get to believe it.  The Creed, like the Church itself is God’s gift to you.”   

So when some leaders argue that we should remove the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy to make us more inclusive and relevant to non-members, I see this argument as just one more expression by folks today who believe that we present living humans have a superior view of all things that have gone before.   I have found that when visitors, especially non-Churched people, visit a Church, they expect it to have a form of liturgy, a Holy Book that we would read and expound, and a set of beliefs that we hold.  I would expect this of either a Jewish service or a Muslim service.  Inclusiveness as an argument for not having these things is at best condescension and at worst folly.  It demands that we surrender our identity in a way that most visitors would never ask or understand.  It is in the final analysis one more argument against tradition by those who have long ago lost any regard for it.   

Of course, I have a right to my opinion, but this is not my point.  My point is that I do not refer to myself as a minority in the Church.  Sure, I understand what conservatives in the Church mean when they say this.  Many times I have voted on a Diocesan level in the minority.  I have certainly as a Deputy to General Convention frequently voted in the minority.  I have often found myself marginalized by so-called “Inclusive” people.  Yet, none of this convinces me that I am a minority.  They simply convince me that in today’s rapidly declining Church, strongly influenced by the secular spirit of the age, and certain of the rightness of every position on social and political issues that I am out voted at this moment.  Then I say the Creed and remember that I have voted with the overwhelming majority with whom I have on-going fellowship, if the All Saints Day Liturgy and the Creed are correct.   By the way, I have Progressive friends who also say the Creed with integrity and belief. Not all Progressives dismiss the Creedal affirmation of Doctrine as mere Tradition or worse, as the Canon did, as opinion.   So, even if I have voted differently on an issue, we have already voted on the essentials.  That is what has, is, and will in the future hold us together. 

 

We have cast our vote, indeed our lives, with Peter, James, John, Matthew, Paul, Mary, Mary Madeline, Perpetua, Felicitas, Justin Martyr, Francis, Claire, Patrick, Augustine, Augustine of Canterbury, Cranmer, Hooker, Brooks, Hines, and a heavenly host of those known and unknown who have already voted. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

And Now “The American Presidency” Starring?


When the 2016 Presidential election cycle began last year, many political pundits envision the election coming down to a Clinton/Bush dynastic battle.  This was because political pundits think that presidential elections are about politics.  Now that Donald Trump is surging in the polls and Hilary Clinton is hanging on to what was once considered an “insurmountable lead,” we have a clearer view of current American political reality.  What with all those reality shows; the popularity of programs like Dancing with the Star, The Bachelor, The Great Race and, need I say it, The Celebrity Apprentice, we should have expected this.  We now have the full emergence of the merger of politics and the Culture of the Celebrity.   

We saw the beginnings of this in the Regan era, but it emerged fully during the Bill Clinton presidency.  We need only remember that Hilary’s emergence on the public scene was not her failed attempt on Health Care, but her role in Presidential Candidate Clinton’s story as The Good Wife forced to stand by her man.  She played out that role in such an effective manner that she was able to claim in her own book that the revelation by Bill about his affair with Monica Lewinski was a genuine moment of betrayal.  Of course, she already knew of several other affairs, but she has kept the script moving forward.  She is now the Julianna Margulies of prime time politics.  By the way, The Good Wife is rumored to be her favorite TV program. 

Many forget that both George Bush and Al Gore ran on a campaign aimed at “restoring dignity” to the office of President.”  This was, I think the failed attempt to snatch politics back from celebrity status to statesmanship, but after the interruption of the 9/11 Presidency and the professorship of the Obama Administration, the celebrity election has fully emerged.  Now our election in 2016 is a kind of combination dance off, survivor Iowa, bachelorette, and shark tank that will lead to one exciting final vote on the second Tuesday of November, 2016.  With celebrity reporters acting as judges and the voters as the audience, it could be one heck of a show with the biggest ratings ever on American TV.  In fact, the most important cultural trend in all this may be the movement of Americans from citizens to audience. 

The build up to all this will be a social media frenzy combined with late night appearances on the all the talking heads.  There will be the obligatory emotional laden appearances on The View, The Chat, and Steve Harvey  where Donald or Hilary whip up their favorite dessert while dishing the latest gossip on their enemies, friends and family.  OMG, I can see Rachel Ray in tears over Hilary’s testimony of her forgiveness of her wayward husband and the struggle of making her own professional way.  By the beginning of 2016, we should have both parties producing a reality program for each major candidate, a kind of behind the scenes look at what makes each of them so interesting.  I doubt even Ms. Jenner can compete with those ratings.  Imagine too the excitement of so many in the entertainment community.  Comedians will be relishing in all the one liners.  Producers will be speculating on all the spin offs; think Keeping up with the Trump Clan or Living with Bill. 

Now, do not get me wrong, I am not saying that politics or the presidency is no longer important when it comes to governing or policy, I am just saying that Americans have changed the criteria by which we will decide who will be best at this.  There was a time when demonstrated leadership, political philosophy, the ability to build consensus, and decision-making were our criteria.  Now with the Cult of Celebrity, the criteria are different.  Now public image is the most important thing.  Hilary Clinton may be able to build on her “stand by my man/great right wing conspiracy/good wife” image combined with being “the first woman president” combined with her “defender of the rights of women, migrants and the poor” (even though she is in the 1%) to win.  Perhaps a last minute November revelation of Bill’s latest betrayal will cement her election.  Or Donald Trump can continue his strong-will/tough decision maker/simple solution image that dominates not only his past TV programs but so much of the image of leader in our media.   

Or a last minute contender may emerge.  I understand Kanye West is considering giving the presidency a run.  Even if he loses, we can easily imagine him grabbing the mic away from the winner to announce that Kim would have been “the greatest First Lady of all time.”  The exciting possibilities here are endless and this is the great strength of The Celebrity Presidency.  After all, politics and politicians get pretty boring after a while.  Then after an election, they have to govern and this is fraught with on-going frustration and criticism.  Against this reality, we have a greater reality show, the realization that either The Hilary Show or The Donald Show can last for at least four seasons.   

And if you are concerned about our image in the world, do not worry.  Media consultants will help the President improve it.   American Culture is, after all, not about substance but about image.  Should we expect the Presidency to be any different? 

 

 

 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Evangelism and Millennials: Why the Atonement Matters

Three years ago, I was teaching a two week class for the Doctor of Ministries students at Nashotah.  It was on congregational development.  Almost all the students were clergy in small congregations.  They were eager to hear what I had to say on attracting and making new members.  In the middle weekend, I traveled to eastern Michigan to visit friends who were once members of my church in Seattle.  They insisted and I was glad to attend their new church that Sunday. 

Victory Fellowship was located in the next town.  It had an interesting history.  The founding pastor was a Pentecostal and had recently retired.  He was replaced by a younger pastor in his mid-30s.  My friends told me he was a great pastor and good preacher.  When the new pastor arrived, the church began to grow and changed its name to Victory Fellowship form The Pentecostal Church, Assemblies of God.  For Episcopalians who do not know much about the Assemblies of God, it is one of the three major “old line Pentecostal Churches of North America.   

My friends told me that the Pastor was a former drug addict who had experienced a miraculous deliverance and sobriety from his addiction and had eventually gone to seminary.  They also explained that he had introduced small group fellowships (they led one) and the church had a huge youth ministry with lots of young adults attending.  They were very excited that on this Sunday a young twenty year old member of their home group was going to be baptized.   

I knew the moment we pulled into the parking lot that I was in for a lesson on reaching millennials.  Everyone seemed to be in their twenties and thirties with a few of us older boomers mixed in.  Also, as we parked, a tattooed biker pulled up next to us with his wife riding behind him.  I noticed that there were lots of motorcycles in the lot.   

I was not surprised to see a theater type modern facility.  I also found that it had a welcome center that served Starbucks Coffee and lots of friendly greeters including the biker and his wife.  The building had two worship areas and a state of the art nursery and education section.  Parents signed in their children and were given a pager in case of emergency.  The two worship centers were for the adults and teens.  The teen area was already rocking with contemporary Christian music led by a youth band.   We made our way to the main worship center.  A music group was playing on the stage which had only a stool and a large screen behind it.  After an opening announcement, the worship began.   

I had been to this type of service before and stood as the music group led by a twenty something “Worship Pastor” led the opening music set.  It contained at least six songs.  I sat down after three songs and noticed that several of the older folks had joined me.  The service contained special prayers, music, scripture, and announcements about planned mission work.  The Worship Pastor was commissioned because he was leaving to start a new church in a nearby community.  Then there was a special song about Faith that led into one of the best teaching sermons I had heard on the biblical subject of Faith.  The theme was Faith what is it, why we need it, and why faith without works is not true faith.   

The pastor started his sermon sitting on the stool.  He was casually dressed and carried an IPad.  It was linked to the screen and, as he made his points, scripture verses and pictures appeared to amplify his message.  His sermon ended with a transition through the offering and offertory music by the band into an introduction to the baptism.  

At the front of the auditorium just below the stage was a large water tank much like you see on the farms in central Michigan.  The young lady was introduced and then the pastor asked her if it was her desire to be baptized into Jesus Christ.  He handed her the microphone and she proceeded to explain how she had “come to Christ.  Now her family, who were not Church Members, watched all this.  Wearing jeans and a top blouse she climbed into the tank and the pastor baptized her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then after she emerged from the water and was wrapped in a large white towel he anointed her with oil and prayed that she would be filled with the Holy Spirit.   

The pastor turned to the congregation.  “Perhaps there are some of you here today who want to follow this dear sister and receive baptism too. You too may feel that you are lost and need a new direction and a new life.”  To the family’s surprise, the woman’s younger sister stepped up and said she wanted to be baptized too.  (I found out later that she had never been to the church.)  She explained to the pastor and to her family and the congregation that she had seen the change in her sister and wanted this life.  Ultimately three other members of the extended family and two other congregants received baptism that day. 

While all this was going on, I stood looking at the members of the congregation.  So many were clearly not the kind of people you see in typical Episcopal Churches.  Many were Millennials, and remember this was the older service.  It was clear that the Church was racially and economically diverse.  I kept asking myself why we Episcopalians have so few examples of churches like this.  I knew that many of the clergy in my D. Min. class would be eager to reach such people.  I also knew that few would. I think that I know part of the reason why we will not. 

The Episcopal Church aims at two kinds of people.  We aim at the “already churched” and the “de-churched.”  We seldom aim our efforts or activities at the unchurched, especially the Millennial Unchurched.  If we are going to evangelize the unchurched youth of today, we will need to change, and I don’t mean style.  You see behind this church’s efforts lies a different interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, or as we call it, the Atonement.  It is not the progressive view that Jesus gives us a model of how to live a life of love.  It is not the Evangelical view that Jesus’ death saved us from our sins.  It is the classical biblical view expressed by Gustaf Aulen’s in “Christus Victor.”   

These young people did not need to know that they are sinners.  Everyone knows that.  They needed to know that there is a Savior who can deliver them from the power of sin, evil, addiction, dysfunctional families, broken relationships, despair, hatred, and death.  The Christ presented at Victory Fellowship is the one that Paul said “nailed to the Cross the Principalities and Powers of this world” and won for us the victory of a new life in his Kingdom.  Who better understands this than the Pastor who was delivered from his addition?  No wonder the name of the Fellowship was VICTORY.   

Here is my point.  The more secular our culture becomes and the more it moves from its Christian heritage, the more Churches will have to discover the full Doctrine of the Atonement.  Surely, Jesus is the model of God’s love for us to follow.  We also find forgiveness in his Cross and a new life.  But we also have a power in this new life that is able to deliver us from the Powers of this world.  This last expression of Atonement will take on much more importance in the coming years, and we had better figure this out as a Church or we will not reach Millennials in any significant way.  We can also consider recruiting from such Millennial Christians those who will plant new congregations.  We may not call them “Victory” Churches because we are after all Anglicans, but we will learn to explain that the Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary, and other such folks all represent followers of Jesus who experience the triumph of Christ’s victory over the Principalities and Powers of this world.  The more secular the culture, the more relevant this message. 

 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Evangelism and the Episcopal Church


I will be writing in my next few blogs on the topic of Evangelism.  When I served on the Standing Committee in the Diocese of Dallas, I would ask those in the ordination process an important question related to evangelism.  First I would tell them that the question that I was about to ask was not a pass or fail one, but rather that I genuinely wanted to know their response.  Here is the question:
“As you know from your theological studies, there are several ways in which the Doctrine of the Atonement has been expressed.  Which one of these best expresses your own personal understanding?”
The reason I asked the question was because I believe there is a direct relationship between what an ordained person believes about the Atonement and how they would do the work of Evangelism.  Almost all the candidates gave a similar answer.  They would say that they believed that Jesus had on the cross paid the price for their sins and that they believed they were forgiven and saved by his death and resurrection.  This, of course, is a standard answer based on The Substitutionary Doctrine of the Atonement.  Now even though we were a conservative diocese, we had folks who had studied at a number of different seminaries.  A number of candidates went to Southwest Theological Seminary which is generally on the Progressive side of the theological spectrum, yet even these candidates gave similar answers.
One would have expect at least some of them to suggest that Jesus’ act of self-sacrificial love that he modeled on the cross showed us God’s love and that we who follow him are to live out a life of love, forgiveness and self-sacrifice for others particularly for the hurting, lost, and marginalized in our world.  This would be more consistent with a Progressive Theological view point.  I never heard it.  One very high church candidate who had gone to Nashotah said that he knew that he was a sinner and that Jesus’ death paid the price of his blood for his sins.  Most any American Evangelical would say the same.
With this the standard answers, one could expect that such people would be active advocates of people repenting of their sins, accepting Jesus’ death, and his blood as a covering for them.  Then they might ask others to make such a profession by repeating, say, “the sinner’s prayer” which is a standard tool among Substitutionary Atonement Evangelicals.  In my time, no rash of evangelical altar calls or invitations were taking place in the diocese, and neither were more Progressive calls for people to follow after the example of Jesus’ love; “his way, truth, and life” as a Christian.
What I found was a disconnect between what our clergy were professing and any behavior that would follow logically from such professions.  Indeed, I would observe around the wider church where Progressive Theology dominates, that there is no active recruiting of new Christians based on this view.  Episcopal Clergy on the Progressive side seem content to find those who wish an inclusive and non-judgmental denomination to join their churches.  If you notice, not very many are doing this, in fact, even less each year. 
There are clergy in our church of differing theological perspectives that are genuinely interested in the growth of their congregations especially with newer and younger members.  Some will even buy my books on congregational development seeking to be user-friendly and seeker sensitive.  However, they do not seem interested in actual evangelization.
Some clergy have told me that they are not interested in numbers and some rather strongly that they do not want to proselytize other people.  These folks seem to have moved so far out into the Universalist arena that they see no value in bringing others to Christ and the Church.  Personally, I believe that such people should be denied a pension, but perhaps I am too judgmental.
At the heart of all this is what I see as four dynamics that hinder our effectiveness in evangelism even when clergy think there is really something in this Atonement business that speaks to us personally.  Why?
1.      Episcopal clergy see ourselves as generous and accepting people who through our willingness want to show others Christ’s love and acceptance so that they will eventually come around to a Christian point of view. 

2.      There is a detachment between our liturgical and parish life from the acts and opportunities for evangelism.  For example, what better Sunday for an altar call or public decision than on Palm Sunday?  Yet clergy believe that having people observe the liturgy is enough.  “They will get it,” we rationalize.   

3.      In addition, many clergy would never interrupt the beauty of the service and its liturgical acts and symbols with such an action.  In summary, many clergy were taught and believe that participation in the Church’s liturgy will bring folks into a decided and deeper relationship with Christ.  They fail to hear the prophetic warning, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me!” 

4.      There is a lack of willingness of our clergy to create opportunities for evangelism.  Even at the end of confirmation instruction, few clergy actually ask people if they are ready to make a commitment or a more intentional commitment to follow after Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Many people believe that a confirmation they are merely joining the Church. 
Before I go on, let me remind my reader of the Episcopal definition of evangelism.  “To present Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in ways that people are led to believe in him as Savior and follow him as Lord within the fellowship of his Church.”Ironically we fail to do such a presentation even though we ourselves admit to an experience, or event, or moment when we led to do so!
For six years, I was Rector of an Episcopal Church that had a weekly evangelistic service.  I led and have seen hundreds of individuals make a conscious and prayerful decision to accept Jesus as Savior and to follow him in the power of the Holy Spirit as Lord.  I am not bragging at this point, but stating a fact.  I would be the first to admit that I had never done such a thing regularly in a parish before I became the Rector of that Church.  What I want to say is this.  I learned to do it.  And I want to suggest the following to my fellow clergy and lay leaders who are interested.  I learned the following:
1.       Never assume that you know where a person is in her or his relationship with Christ until you hear it from them.  And NO ONE has a greater right or opportunity to inquire about a member’s spiritual life and relationship to Christ than the Rector. 

2.      There are many church members who love the Church, its liturgy, its parish life, its Anglican style, but who are not disciples of Jesus Christ.  I have had so called “life-long members” of the Episcopal Church say to me that they see no reason for them to ever have to make a decision to follow Christ: note that we teach that Confirmation is an adult affirmation of our Baptismal Vows to do just such a thing.   

3.      In our subtle way of presenting the Gospel, we fail to understand the importance of a conscious moment of commitment.  As a lay evangelist once told me, clergy in our church seem reluctant to “close the deal.”   

Here is what I think is both a pastoral and spiritually valid way of closing the deal.  “Have you come to a place where you are comfortable accepting Jesus as Savior and following him as Lord?  If not, why not?”
Notice that “No” is an acceptable answer to the question, and that a no answer allows up to speak to any objections the person may have.  What I find is that there is a real spiritual value in a person honestly admitting (even if a Church member) that he or she is not yet at a place where that person is comfortable with this.  I have had many people come back to me at a later time and say that NOW they are now ready to do it.   
I did not write this blog to make anyone feel bad especially my fellow clergy.  I had to learn how to do evangelism.  What I am suggesting is that clergy need to connect our view of the Atonement with a practical way of applying this.  This is the work of evangelization.  If you want to discuss this with me more directly, feel free to email me at deankevinmartin@gmail.com  I would be happy to reply.
In my next blog, I want to suggest a fuller understanding of the Doctrine of the Atonement and how I apply this to our increasingly more secular world. 

 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

General Convention; Notes from the Fringe


Leaders of the Episcopal Church are gathering for General Convention.  I am retired , but this does not mean that I am not engaged with this special time in the life of the Church.  There are many important items before this gathering from TREC’s call to restructuring, the debate on changes in the Marriage Canon, to funding of the Church’s Mission for the next three years.  No matter how important these matters are, I am writing from the fringe to remind us of some important ecclesiastical and theological issues before us.  I write to remind us all: 

1.        That the Church (especially Anglicanism in North America) is broken.  It is divided, fractured, and in serious decline.  We are unable to fix this situation on our own power and attempts to restructure the Church and General Convention of our own efforts will fail. 

To acknowledge this truth is not to say that there is nothing good in TEC or that significant ministry and mission is not happening, there are plenty of signs of health and vitality. The centers of health and vitality should be models and examples for all of us to follow. 

The need some leaders to affirm TEC unabashedly or any other way to state that the present fracture and decline does not mean the Church is dying (but is in transformation) and that there is plenty that is good and godly  is helpful and hopeful.  Hope is after all one of the three Theological Virtues.  Where such affirmations bring hope, they are good.  Where such affirmations feed denial and reinforce the status quo of brokenness and out dated structures and forms, they are not helpful. 

The path before us must begin by acknowledging our current situation.  Blaming others for our condition and claiming a self-assured rightness, theologically called “self-righteousness” are both sides of the same coin of dysfunction.  The cure for this condition is repentance and reconciliation.  We should make reconciliation a priority in all that we do and in how we treat one another, even those who have left TEC.   

2.       That there are three important questions we must answer at this time 

We must reaffirm who we are or more importantly “whose we are” or “to whom we belong.”   The historical teaching and metaphors are significant.  The Church is the Body of Christ, the household of God, Christ’s creation by water and the Spirit, the Community of the Resurrection, the incarnation of the reign of God, or my favorite, The Community of the King.  

As this community, we acknowledge that we have both the Great Commandment to love one another and the Great Commission to make disciples as our core values.  These call us to mission and the second question is simply “What is our mission at this time?”   

This leads us, as TREC has so rightly pointed out, to the question of “How we are to organize and structure our present community to accomplish this mission?” Although, IMHO, TREC has too quickly assumed that the wider Church has really engaged these primary questions of identity and mission. They are right that forms must follow and flow from the first two questions; who are we, and what is our present mission?   

The over-arching consensus that has emerged among those who have seriously engaged these questions is that this mission should focus on having our structures and methods serve the local congregations, ministries, organizations, institutions, and Dioceses, and that our corporate entities (such as General Convention, Executive Council, and the Office of Presiding Bishop are primarily to serve these local communities and ministries.   

It does seem that many of the recommendations to restructure our corporate entities are caught up in too many details and that one General Convention cannot fix this and can easily be caught up in debate on details that are not that significant when it comes to the three main questions.  For example, who can really say whether a bi-cameral or unicameral legislative body best serves our current mission?  This work can only begin now with some clear guidelines to direct us, and it will take the new Presiding Bishop and the Executive Council to guide significant change and evaluate efforts at restructuring with on-going feedback from these local communities.    

Historically, Anglicans and Episcopalians have believed that Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are our authorities in ordering our life as a community.  We should affirm and trust that as these values have guided us in the past.  They can guide us in the future.  May those at General Convention remember these values as they seek God’s direction for our community at the critical moment in our life.