Category Archives: Evangelism

Whose Tradition is The Best?

Recently I’ve heard people in church leadership saying things like, “What makes our tradition the best?”   Or “This is why I think OUR tradition is the best.”  In all cases, people are talking about tradition (“We have such great hymns,” and “We don’t judge people who come to worship with us,” and “We have such a wonderful burial liturgy,” and “The thing I like about being Episcopalian/Presbyterian/Lutheran etc. etc. etc. is that we use language so much better than the others!”).   They are also talking about culture–ritual, vestments, candles, all the rest of it. 

Culture and tradition are not faith.  It is a great mistake to confuse either of the two with the value and efficacy of faith. 

We are all inclined to admire ourselves.  We are all inclined to rest there in front of the mirror, oozing satisfaction in our identities and our heritage.  We all do this, and we do it with such satisfaction that we are less than one step from implying that we have the true faith because our traditions are better than others’.  Some people, of course, take that last step and stand firmly on the seemingly solid ground of opinion.  “My tradition is the ONLY one by which you will be truly saved–”  whether that means that you alone know how the Holy Spirit works, or you alone are privileged with God’s view of the goats and sheep in advance of the Last Day.

You can’t convince me.

It’s not just that being judgmental and exclusionary is not Christian in the least.  The great trap and betrayal lying in wait here is that inability leaders have to see in proportion.  Leaders and ordinary Christians MUST be able to distinguish between practice and preference, and stop acting largely on the latter.

Leaders in the church have to grow past the American cultural ideal of success and accomplishment (professional or personal).  When they have learned to really distinguish the self-taught, self-reinforcing blindness of self-deception, they will stop seeing others as valuable only inasmuch as they reflect their own values.  This behavior, not Christian at all, ends in worship of tradition, worship of one’s own cultural expressions of being human.  “Come here, we do it better than anyone else does; you’ll have a better experience of salvation with us.” 

Christians for centuries have been rightly accused and justly condemned for this behavior.  There’s no difference in the effect if is a declaration of superiority or a condemnation of a difference.  The claims of appreciative inquiry are bosh.  The claim of being super-right is equally ridiculous.  There’s no supportive need in the church’s early development or justification in the canon of Jesus’ example, (before the emperors claimed Jesus and the church weapons of their own).  If you carry on as though your own tradition is better than anyone else’s, you are clear about your tradition, and the rest of us are just lucky if we get to see Jesus in it.  People who claim their tradition and culture promote Christianity better than anyone else’s, are either converts or have never left home.   The core values of Christian faith have a larger platform of common ground.

It’s hard enough to put up with nations fighting each other to declare supremacy of values (since we no longer tolerate claiming each other’s real estate).  Let the leaders of churches and their professional helpers refrain from doing the same.

“As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

So–there’s only a modest point in being Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist, Moravian or United Church of Christ, Copt or Orthodox. 

One’s best traditions are like good or beautiful choreography for some who are drawn to that way of dancing.  Or, traditions are like rooms full of decor that appeal to one person’s tastes and not another’s.    One can rejoice in the pleasant lines and heritage one has received, without claiming to have the best of anything.  If one is to boast, one should try to remember that the only valid boast is in Jesus Christ.

The text in Galatians quoted above does not conclude, “and if you belong to the Episcopal/Methodist/Southern Baptist/Anglican/Presbyterian… Church, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Jesus’ words in John, quoting Isaiah, run thusly:  “This people knows me with their lips,  but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” These are words to wrestle with when we feel particularly satisfied with our own ways.  We rarely recognize it when we’ve become smug.    But we can look after ourselves (and our traditions) without prizing ourselves.  That way is the way of humility.  That way is the most winsome and Christlike.  Not easy, but plain; a low way and quiet, worthy of tradition.

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Don’t Bring Them In–Send Them Out!

It’s time for evangelism to get out of the church.

The standard line in churches now is ‘bring them in, call them home, give them the Good News inside–here.’

This is a real problem for Christians and churches everywhere in America.  For one thing, whether under the guise of ‘doing evangelism’ or being evangelical, the standard approach is also disingenuous because underneath it all, the plain point is getting more people together with your congregation, because they have more funds to tap to get the buildings and program out of debt and get the budget paid for–not to mention clergy and staff salaries.  Well, perhaps we should mention salaries.  They are a major reason that evangelism is self-centered, static and about ‘growing’ the church.

The deep point I want to make is that for at least 75 years now in American church life, Protestant churches–probably RC as well, have NOT been able to conceive of and get real things done, and have retreated consistently to the spongelike way of being that we see and experience everywhere in Christian communities now.  Getting things done, conceiving and organizing socially are hog-tied by all the questions about finance.

When I was growing up on the Presbyterian mission field, everything had to be paid for, or missionaries went home and projects shut down.  The mentality was strictly pay-as-you-go.  I am sure the change in fiscal probity occurred while I was an adult, but I must not have been really paying attention (though I was paying my pledge).  Perhaps the easy money of the late 90s and early 2000’s infected the church as well as the housing  market and the banks themselves.  After all, churches are wont to trust the banks more than  God–like that brutal truth or not.  (How many church leaders, clergy included, inarticulately assume that God will be asking to see the bank balance sheet on Judgment Day, and will certainly be rewarding all those who provided for themselves rather than waiting for God to give them the money they needed?) 

In all, this has twisted the point of evangelism so that seriously dedicated, regularly worshipping, constant givers and church leaders think that the way out of their debt-ridden endowment drawing problems is to bring in more members?  “We’ve tapped out our regular givers; our only serious answer is to get more members who will contribute,” is what I heard in the 1970s, and I’m still hearing this in 2011. 

Evangelism is NOT about getting more people into the church.  Evangelism is about spreading the Light, being the yeast, being salt, realizing and offering authentically Good News to people wherever they are, as it is truly relevant to those people, not as your church needs them for their money.  At least one way of learning to stop the heretical thinking about joining the Baptized in the Body of Christ.  Think twice.  Imagine the people you are hoping to reach, sitting in the pews of your church, without any money, and with a heart for worship and prayer.  Imagine them as doing enough if they come to worship.  Imagine giving proceeding from the feel of belonging that results from being at home in worship. 

Go out to affect the people whom Christ Jesus has within reach of your expression of compassion.  Don’t wait for these people to come in and find you in the pew next to them.  Go out and be salt, light and the Body of Christ where they are.  If they want to come back where you get your strength and nourishment for witness, hope they’re coming for the worship of Christ and not for what they’ll eventually put in the plate.  When  they want to belong to the Body of Christ where you are, that’s the time when belonging is important and giving is essential.  Don’t skip over the terribly essential part of witnessing without the expectation of gain.  That’s the only way the winsome light of Christ will move through you into someone else.

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About Churches on the Verge of Extinction

This posting is another on the subject of judicatories closing (or more formally, extinguishing) churches.  

I’ve been wondering what kind of due diligence really makes sense for judicatories thinking about the congregations in their midst that are on the verge of closing.

In a conversation about church closings with Bob Gallagher, director and founder of the Church Development Institute, the country’s premier training for congregational development, he suggested that determining a given church’s main task would be at least one of the questions to ask.

I notice that demographics and fiscal conditions don’t top his list.  Why shouldn’t they be the first and main points in determining a congregation’s viability?  

The answer has to do with a church’s founding, I believe.  We found congregations to offer worship, to offer service and Christian care to others, and to nurture and form Christian lives.  The demographics and the finances of a new church are important, but never the main reason for founding a parish.  Neither should these be the main driving reasons for extinguishing a church.  At the beginning, they smack loudly of self-reliance, and at the end, they smack of convenience.

What’s done in the years leading up to extinguishment really matters.   Helping a congregation gain clarity around its main task takes time–lots of time.  Maybe years of time and patience.   Effective help takes commitment of resources and attention on the part of the judicatory leaders,  and not just to the single parish but to an overall vision for all the congregations within its oversight.  

If there is one single key moment when one can see a parish  standing at the crossroads between the short distance to extinguishment and the long distance to renewal and revival, it is the pivot between the last full-time clergy leader and whoever comes next.  Of course this can happen in any geographic setting–urban (church building too big, neighborhood long since past  being prosperous), small town (local industries folded and never replaced) or rural (farms not able to hold succeeding generations, remoteness of area unable to draw new populations).  And of course the decision not to hire another full-time rector or pastor is complicated.   Individual reasons should never be reduced to a theory or generalized to a category.  But that limbo, that semi-paralytic state in which so many parishes languish for so long before gray heads outnumber any other sort in the pews, has to be an early warning sign to everyone who cares about the Body as a whole (made up of all of us in all the congregations around, whether we are part of the denomination of the declining congregation we have in mind or not).

The first move with the church in question?  Identify its main motive power. Taking time to treat a congregation as viable is only due diligence.    (Did their strength lie in membership growth?  in outreach or service?  in the formation of Christians?  Does the current outside situation need any of those signs of Christ’s presence?).  Can they yet find energy and will to answer a calling?   If not, the lamp is out.  If so, a flame might yet be breathed into life there.

Of course it’s possible to bring churches  in a kind of permanent ‘transition limbo’ from the state of part-time retired clergy leadership to a fresh start.  Of course it’s possible to bring the parish out of slow decay.  A judicatory with half its parishes in transition limbo resembles a house with its front yard full of cars, trucks and boats waiting to be fixed or sent to the junk yard.  Don’t start seeing this as inevitable or normal.  But don’t wait to start thinking until the front yard is full of clunkers.

In plain language, even when a congregation has only 70 year-olds left in its pews, Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is a congregation in a slow, remote little town or on the dusty side streets of a 3rd tier city?  Christ’s motive power may still be present.  Is it inconvenient and complicated to arrange for such discernment?  Is it discouraging, especially when ‘facts’ speak so plainly (no services held in half a year, no members baptized or buried in 12 months, no new leaders in 3 years)?   Are those Gospel excuses?  Under such circumstances, perhaps it is too late to ask clarifying questions.  But what can profit a judicatory in avoiding the struggle to find Christ’s power and purpose in a congregation with survival issues?  And what else is it, really, besides a survival issue, that creates the circumstances of transition and interim limbo?

Clarify the main task of said congregation.  Ask what resources are available both for development and for spiritual first aid in the membership.  Follow spiritual first aid with new emphasis on spiritual formation.  Become intentional about serious congregational development in the judicatory and in the parishes.   Emphasize judicatory leaders’ training in sound organizational development skills and competency.    Engage in serious leader development in the parish.  Consider wild and unusual ideas (yoking 3 or 4 parishes having the same problems, whether they are of the same denomination or not).  But start early and start with intention.  Why do less?

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Evangelizing America through Tiger Woods

The Book of Common Prayer’s collect for the first week of Epiphany seems quite apt today.  We pray this week for all the baptized, that they might keep the Baptismal Covenant and, the prayer goes on, “may boldly confess Christ as Lord and Savior.”

Is that what Brit Hume did in his casual advice to Tiger Woods?  Hume was bold, alright.  Did he have the right to speak as he did?  Of course.

But:  Is giving advice the same as confession of Christ as Lord?  

And:  Does ignorant dismissal of someone else’s beliefs amount to effective evangelism?

I’d say no, and no.   I’d say Brit Hume was flaunting his religion, not confessing Jesus Christ or witnessing to the good news of Christ as it as affects his own life.  Hume’s act is typical of  the triumphalist Christianism.  Unhappily, most non-Christians in America take  Christianism as orthodox Christian doctrine and theology.  Brit Hume did Christians no favor.  His witness amounts to self-advertisement, cheap gimcrack evangelism.  Hear the clanging cymbals! 

Not only did Hume display an arrogance and shallowness that defaces God’s love, but he showed a dismaying lack of  common good manners.  His conduct was nothing like that of a mature person’s, or even a thoughtful, polite person of any faith, responding to a fellow human in great sorrow or grief.  Hume, loudly pronouncing his assumptions of Tiger Woods’ need for Hume’s own version of Christian faith, showed himself incapable of sharing Woods’ trouble.  Some grace.  Some witness.  Where was Hume’s reflection of the gravity and difficulties of forgiveness as he has experienced it for himself?  Now, that would be witnessing!

When Hume spoke of Christ as the source of forgiveness, did we see Christ in reconciliation, healing and new beginnings?   I think we just saw Hume in a self-important posture, and, significantly, we also saw ourselves and the various faces of our own culture.  Hume’s response is typical of American Christianist (that’s not a spelling mistake) bumper sticker theology.   He was callous, grandstanding and humiliating to Tiger Woods.  Why would anyone, least of all the object of his comments,  be interested in the forgiveness Hume is recommending? 

Evangelism is no trumpet, not an orchestra, not a flag, not an advance to claim and occupy territory.   Evangelism–conveying good news–is pointless if not relevant. 

Is the Christian understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation relevant to Tiger Woods?  Possibly.  But delivered from a theoretical and distanced position of presumptive superiority, the salt loses flavor (fit only to be trod underfoot), and instead of offered light, a blow torch is thrown from a helicopter passing overhead.    True Christian evangelism is close, careful, even intimate work, done face to face, hand to hand, and rooted in respectful relationship. 

True evangelism shows in the witness who is willing to bear others’ burdens, suffering with them, weeping when they weep, sharing humiliation with them, being sensitive to embarrassment and compromise.    If he had shown even a scintilla of compassion, able to share Woods’ condition and not  judging the man’s religion, Hume might have touched listeners with a truth greater than his understanding, and–remotely, perhaps even touched his fellow celebrity.  But Hume treated a fellow human being as the evangelical equivalent of a shooting target.

 Evangelism, truly engaged and truly effective, is always lodged in a believing community.  Effective evangelism is not the same thing as advice or doctrine.  The good news as relevent to Americans in the 21st century will come from people who  faithfully  practice of Christian formation.  The spectacle of a news show is not a Christian community.  The believing community that supports harsh pronouncements like Hume’s, seems like a rather unattractive, pugnacious and self-righteous place.   Evangelism is not a hit-and-run activity. Hume showed himself an  untrustworthy witness.

And did Hume open a conversation we Christians need to have?  No.  Ross Douthat opened that conversation. 

His article in the NYTimes, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/11/opinion/11douthat.html will no doubt show up as a topic for Christian Education sessions on evangelism in the new year.  I hope, in such events, that Christians begin by admitting they know next to nothing about the practice of Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, and this is part of the evangelical problem we all have.  

Christians with courage of their faith will calmly and without a defensive posture, consider and try to understand the beliefs of others, with no fear of apostasy.    Christians might even profit from discussing the damage that triumphalism (a mark of Christianism, not of Christ) has done to the credibility of our witness.   If, however, the discussions of evangelism jump straight into offering advice and sticking Jesus to anyone who practices another religion, we’ve lost a good chance to learn lessons on boldly confessing Jesus Christ in our own time–the fraught and  culturally complicated 21st century.  

Some books that make good accompaniment to a forum or Adult Ed series on evangelism today are:  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and The Open Secret, both by Lesslie Newbigin, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church by Roland Allen, and When the Members are the Missionaries, by A. Wayne Schwab.  All three are available in paper back at Alibris and Amazon.

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Epiphany epiphany

The usual prayers for this season seem to slide along the surface of the mind–“O God, who by the leading of a star manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth, lead us who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face…”   I found myself wondering what else the Body might pray for during Epiphany.  Then I remembered a lovely little Epiphany prayer of Karl Barth’s, in which he gave thanks for his ancestors who had converted, thereby setting his family and his community on the path of knowledge and faith in God. 

It is good to recall those who came before us and have, by their lives and maturity of Christian faith, worn the path plain.   I find it particularly good and humbling to recall my ancestors (Celtic all, both in what is now the British Isles and along the banks of the Rhine in what is now Switzerland) who were not Christian, because no Christian had yet come to live among them.  Gradually, century by century after the Romans invaded the northern reaches of Europe, my forbears learned what it is to become mature in the faith. 

It takes living among people to know what is good news to them, to know what their bad news is, to know their language, to speak their language appropriately.  It takes living by faith to find out what one might have to offer as true witness.  When someone arrives on a scene and publicly asserts possession of  good news that is–according to the speaker, good news for others regardless of their interest or needs, they make the sound of clanging cymbals and clashing gongs.     Think of  Charlemagne’s version of Epiphany–bringing the light to the unconverted.  There he went, riding through the villages of France with soldiers, war dogs and a priest; he gathered all the villagers in whatever hamlet or town he’d reached, and announced that as their emperor he had decided that for their own good, they be baptised or beheaded.   In spite of Charlemagne and all his imitators, we yet have a sacred right to choose.  That freedom is essential to the Holy Spirit’s action. 

Lamin Sanneh, a professor of world history and Christian missions at Yale University, once described a crucial mistake made by some of the Christian missionaries to Africa.  He suggested we think of evangelism as we think of the postal service.  Some missionary traditions were not able to respect their own work.  Having delivered the letter from God–for the Africans, the mail carriers (as it were) sat down, opened the letter, proceeded to read it as though it was theirs and not the recipients’ , and then went on to tell the recipients what the letter meant as well as their right response to it.  

 The point I made of needing to live among those with whom one wants to share the effects of the Good News, is proper here.  Evangelism is hard work, because it requires conscientious attention to others, rather than soap box demands of them.  Often the missionaries who were the best at witnessing, understood what to say only after they had lived ‘on the field’ long enough to speak the language and know the people, cook the food, love the places and feel sympathy with those whom they had come to serve.  (I speak of Presbyterian missionaries only, since it is their mission I know best.)  Most of the most effective missionaries lived their whole lives ‘on the field’ and found greater opportunity to manifest the faith in the way they lived than by what they said.   That’s witnessing the hard, effective way.  That’s living in the Light, by the power of Light.

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