It has been a long time since I’ve posted. I have to apologize for this fact. I’ve been trying to pass language exams, study for qualifying exams, and teach several classes at the same time. However, I was recently asked by my rector to give a talk today after church, for which I decided to begin working out some of my ideas on the relationship of the church to secular social orders. This speech is the result of, and to a large degree my thoughts as based on, some of the insights I’ve had while blogging, talking to Tripp, etc. On some of the points I made that the church is dying and what that means, I’d encourage you to look at my previous 3 blogs. Also, keep in mind that I wrote this speech to a church in Southern California, a spot where, if any of my insights into secularization are true, it is here.
At any rate, the speech had quite a few thought provoking responses, so I thought I’d share it on Homebrewedchristianty.com as well. It’s primarily written for speaking, so it’s repetitive and more concerned with evoking response than anything else. But, I really don’t feel like or have time to revise it. I hope it you enjoy .
Evangelism, as you know, has come into and established itself as one of the focuses of the Vestry for some time. I do not know exactly when this goal took hold, far before my own invitation onto the Vestry. But I’m glad that it did, and I’m extremely glad and grateful for the work that this vestry, this congregation, and the pastoral leadership has already done in this area. However, today, I would myself like to take this opportunity to add a few insights to the work already done and established. I think I have a few insights that could help us define our way as we continue to move into the field of evangelism, which is all the more necessary the more churches in the U.S. shrink. These insights I offer not as Gospel truths, but as insights that, as a community, we might find worth talking about. And they might be worth talking about even if the majority of them are rejected.
I would like to begin today’s talk by talking about a pretty obvious assumption. The assumption is simple, and the assumption is that you are here today because you think it’s important to be here. Why you think it’s important to be here could be classified under a number of ideas, some of which might include the following: that we need salvation and that we’re saved through participation in the church; that we need to be moral and that we’re made moral in this participation; or even that we need fellowship, and by means of meeting with our friends on a weekly basis, we’re made whole by our participation in community. Needless to say, in some manner, all of these classifications of what we find important can be categorized under what might be called “necessity.” In other words, the important reason that you are here in church is because in some way you believe your participation in church to be necessary, for whatever reason.
I would like, on top of this point, to make a second point. This might seem disconnected to the first point at a first glance, but I hope you’ll patiently hear me out. I dare say that the mainline church in this nation is dying, and there’s a case to be made that many Evangelical churches, while doing fine, are having problems, too. And, at least empirically speaking, this fact seems apparent. I will read to you, in fact, part of an article a teacher of mine recently sent me. It says, “Organized religion was already in trouble before the fall of 2008. Denominations were stagnating or shrinking, and congregations across faith groups were fretting about their finances…. The Great Recession made things worse…. Because of certain economic trends (some of which were beyond the churches control), mainline Protestants were among the most vulnerable to the downturn. Their denominations had been losing members for decades…. National churches had been relying on endowments to help with operating costs, along with the generosity of an aging membership that had been giving in amounts large enough to mostly make up for departed brethren. The meltdown destroyed that financial buffer. The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and other mainline denominations were forced to cut jobs and their national budgets.” That should suffice to make the point that the church is and has been dying.
The third point I want to make, then, relates these two ideas together, namely, that there is a relationship between the church viewing itself as necessary, as obligatory, and, in general, the death of the church in the U.S. And the link between these two ideas is the following. While we might think that the church is necessary to our lives, and even to the life of the nation as a whole, a large portion of the nation completely disagrees. A portion of the nation, even the majority of the nation believes that the church is unnecessary, able to be thrown out, able to be discarded. The church has become unnecessary to the social order. This fact translates into an important point. Because we think of the church as necessary, we believe that it is a plain and simple fact that people ought to be here. ‘The obligation to be a part of the church ought to be obvious to the nation, and if it is not, the nation is simply in sin.’ This attitude is no different than, say, that of a town with only one gas station. Because the gas station believes it’s product is necessary to the town, and because it is the only provider of that product, it feels necessary. It can hike up prices, give poor customer service, and provide gross bathrooms. Until, that is, another gas station comes to town, when it will be either forced to change or go out of business. In a similar way (and I’m not saying we’ve been this gas station), because the rest of the nation does not believe the church to be an obligation on their lives, it could care less that we think in such a way. And because the church too often has nothing to offer the nation that is something beyond necessities, like the old gas station, no one will come. Hence, the church is dying.
At this point, I have laid out for this congregation what I believe are some very difficult, but nevertheless pertinent truths. We as a church are not necessary to the social order. But that does not mean that we’re unimportant. I want, then, to return to the idea of “importance.” As I said, the fact that we as a church still think that we’re important in terms of being necessary, as though either we or the nation as a whole is obliged to be at church, this has helped cause the church’s demise. However, it is also possible to admit the following truth as well. Not everything that is important to us or to our lives can be defined by its necessity, its obligation. Sometimes important subjects can be defined by other means.
Take for instance the feeling of joy in a coworker’s, a family member’s, or a friend’s loving camaraderie. That joy in fellowship, of being friends is not necessary. Indeed, friendship in this sense is not necessary at all. What is necessary, rather, is that cold economic reality that persons live in communities and learn to tolerate one another. What is necessary is that through toleration we can work with one another so as to achieve the immediate goals of feeding ourselves. What is necessary is the division of labor so that all the basic elements of survival are provided for. What is necessary is thus the symbiosis of society: that persons enact their talents and share with others for those others’ talents. Mutual benefit for the sake of survival is necessary. But certainly joy in the fellowship, while important, cannot be classified in this necessary sense of importance. For the joy is unnecessary. And yet, it is these joys that brings the truest and most important meaning to and out of our lives. Thus, while not necessary, the joy of fellowship remains important nonetheless as something that I believe is more than necessary.
I want to begin to briefly explore this last sense of importance in relationship to the church; it will form the bulwark of my positive argument. Some things are important by being more than necessary. This means that some things are absolutely irreducible to the necessities of daily life. This sense of importance, however, is the importance I would suggest we ought to begin to attach to our understandings of church life. Church life does not gain its importance because of its necessity, because of the natural obligation we have to it; rather, it gains its importance because it gives us something more than necessary, beyond what we need to survive. Church life, in fact, gives to us and gives us to grace; it gives to us and gives us to an act of God that we do not need for our functioning in the economic struggles of daily life. But this act of God and the fellowship surrounding it brings to us great joy, beauty, and senses of life that are more than necessary.
The great Protestant insight, in my opinion, can precisely be understood as this insight into God’s gift. God is in God’s self a gift who gives existence to his own creation. But God does not give existence because creation can make a demand of God for it. Creation cannot rise up and demand of the creator that it be created. For, aside from God, and before creation, nothing existed; and from this nothing, God brought forth the gift of existence, creating this universe out not because he needed to. God needs nothing. God created out of the gift and grace of selfless love. But because nothing existed beforehand, neither could we have existed beforehand. That, in turn, means we could not demand of God that God create us. God creates as a gift, and only because of this gift do we have any ability to demand, rightly or wrongly, at all.
In the same way, this insight applies to salvation. God, in God’s grace, gives to God’s creation the gift of salvation. And this salvation is the promise of the resurrection and cosmic peace wherein, as Isaiah so beautifully says,
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them….
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
But this salvation cannot be demanded of God. From nothing we were created and to nothing we are obliged to return. Nothing is the necessity, the naturality of what we are. But God gives salvation not out of the necessity of it, but because of God’s grace. God gifts to us what God need not gift, first in terms of creation, and second in terms of renewed creation.
Back to the point at hand, I would intimate that these gifts are precisely the gifts that we become aware of and receive in church life. We do not need church life just as we do not need to be created; God give them both. We do not need church life, either, for salvation; nothing we do can place a demand on God to save us. Church life does not save. And, at least my generation does not even need it for fellowship; an important insight if this church is to reach others like in my generation. Church life is, rather, a pure joy beyond need for which we get to participate in church life. Church life is a gift; and a gift cannot be reduced to necessity without losing its status as gift
If I may briefly recap before moving on, I’m here saying that we can understand things to be important in two different senses. Some things can be important because they are necessary; such is the case with bare necessities we need to exist such as food, water, shelter. Some things however can be understood as important out of being more than necessary; such is the case with things like beauty, fellowship, love, and most importantly for this argument, church life. I am recommending, then, that we as a church begin to move away from understanding of ourselves, what we do, and how we relate to the society at large in terms of necessity. I’m advocating instead that we begin to think of ourselves, what we do, and how we relate to society, in terms of being more than necessary…in terms of being a gift. If we begin to think of ourselves as a gift, it means we are able to first think of church life itself as gifted to us. Church life is not necessary for us, but more than necessary. It is participation in and remembrance of the Gifts of God, the gift of existence, the gift of God’s saving Son. This understanding relieves us of the burden of necessity, and church life then becomes something that we can gift to the social order as a whole.
“So what,” you might ask. “ How does this help us at all?” It does nothing in itself, I would say. But I at least believe that coming to re-understand our church and its life according to an importance that is more than necessary, as gift, can break the old mindsets. “We do things this way,” a church might say, “because that’s how they’ve always been done.” That’s what GM and Chrysler said, too. They thought of themselves as necessities for our country. As it is with GM and Chrysler, so it is with the mainline churches; only we will not receive a government bailout to ensure our traditions survive (I got this line from Tripp somewhere). To think of ourselves as living in and offering gifts that are more than necessary to our country gives us the ability to think of ourselves in entrepreneurial terms, (to continue this economic analogy). It allows us to begin experimenting, finding a nietch through which we can serve our fellow citizens. Such, anyways, has been the strength of the emergent churches, for those of you who have heard of them; they’ve not felt bound to the way we do things. They innovate, make church curious again, make it a gift and wonder to the world.
Our first task is thus to kill our attitudes of entitlement. We are entitled to a portion of the population, we might think. These thoughts stem from our self-understanding as performing a necessary service. Our second task is thus to re-understand ourselves as receiving and giving God’s gifts in church life; this attitude allows us to reengage the world entrepreneurially. Our third task is to begin defining a few ways in which we might do just that: give god’s gifts.
I propose that we begin to concretely act this insight out in a few different ways. First, a gift that we can begin to give is the gift of beauty. This idea is important because what people desire now more than ever, especially my generation ever is beauty is transcendent and spiritual beauty. Beauty itself is a gift, something more than necessary. And beauty is a gift that we can easily give.
Prior to naming any concrete examples, I should say that beauty is no unimportant thing, either theologically or culturally speaking. Beauty, goodness, being, and truth were all understood as divine traces in medieval Christian theology; all were considered to be one and the same as God, in fact. God is the Good; God is the true; God is the Beautiful. To bring beauty somewhere is thus to bring the divine attribute. That is why Dostoevzky can say that “Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
So, for one, let us refine our liturgy so that it exudes through its non-necessity the grace of God. Allow the liturgy to bring in the gift that is beauty the divine Word of life. And let us think through our sanctuary itself in such a way that it truly beatifies the gifts that we adorn with it, the gift of the body and blood of our Lord. Let both together evoke a sense of the beautiful and divine mystery who gave to us this world and our salvation. As that famous line at the end of “my country tis of thee says to “let freedom ring,” I say ‘let beauty ring.’
So again, physical beauty is not enough. Let us engage in a beautiful fellowship with one another. Let strive to include within our fellowship those whom the world rejects. Let us offer to them the divine gift that is church life and church fellowship; let us offer it to them so that they may find something beautiful for which to live and strive. Let us offer a fellowship which is not necessary for our survival in economic sense, but more than necessary, as joyful.
Secondly, I think we should perhaps take up the question at a conscious level of what it means to be Anglican. We should take up the question of how we as Anglicans have historically shared the gifts of God; what in Christendom has been our role, how did we work, why are we still around? Let us reeducate ourselves and remember what the call of the Anglican order of the Christian faith is. This idea is something we’re beginning to do at our church; I would encourage you to participate.
Finally, let us bring these gifts to the world. That is, let us bring a beautiful Anglican spirit to our communities. Let us give to our communities in the best ways we know how. Let us reaffirm the desires of the vestry and church leadership to evangelize by giving this world the gifts of God. How to concretely do this, however, is another story and another conversation for a different time.