Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Christian Text In A New World Context

I was having dinner with a group of Episcopal Church leaders discussing “the emergent church” and a bold new proposal to ordain priests for the emergent church with minimal preparation, trusting they would pick up priesthood OJT. I said nothing, but it gave me pause to hear this idea, knowing we tried it in Nevada and other Total Ministry dioceses, sometimes with unfortunate results. In fact, only a couple of conventions ago, the church repealed Canon 9 to get away from that experiment. We are now in the midst of upgrading the training for all orders of ministry so it surprised me to hear that training for priesthood was at risk again. (I am not saying the training has to be conventional seminary education. We are expanding local training, but still requiring that training comes before ordination.)

The conversation then took an interesting turn, the turn that makes this subject blog worthy, because there was a young man at the table – a college student. The older leaders asked his view. He said relaxing the training for clergy was irrelevant. He saw no reason for the church to have ordained people anymore than there was any need for the church to have buildings. (It is an axiom of the emergent church movement that the church should not have buildings.) This led to the leaders asking how he would envision a service led by a lay person in a secular building. The young man did not think church services were such a good idea either. His vision is that the lay minister would hang out at a bar with people and if religion came up naturally in the conversation, then the minister would participate in that conversation.

I suddenly got a vision of the post-modern church: no sacred space; no clergy; untrained laity; no prayers; no hymns; no scripture. I wondered if the bar where religion might come up in the conversation naturally would have a Sunday School area for the children. I am entirely for extending the gospel message into all sorts of settings in all sorts of ways, but I was struck by the idea that so much of the faith that has saved my life might be erased as no longer relevant to people now.

I remembered when I was that college student’s age, I was not a Christian. I did not attend worship services either. But when driving through central Texas – which I did a lot back then – I would without fail stop at an old Lutheran church near a German village. It was always unlocked. I would just go in and look at the stained glass windows and cult objects I did not even understand, and I felt the holiness. What if they had sold that building and become emergent, meeting in a bar, talking about religion if it came up naturally?

I remember when I was his age, and I would go home to East Texas, I would visit Fr. Allen, a pious old Episcopal priest who never said anything to convert me, but who was a holy man and dressed the part so I could recognize him as a personal representative of something much larger and older than himself. What if St. James, Texarkana had decided they did not need any hierarchical professional clergy. Fr. Allen would not have been there for me, teaching me gospel without saying a word, sharing grace just by listening.

In his book, The Cross In Our Context, Douglass John Hall asks the question whether Christianity will survive the 21st Century, noting that some respectable voices question whether Christianity made it into the 21st Century. Christendom, the era when being Christian was a social and cultural norm, is certainly long dead in most places. It may have never reached us here in Nevada. But Christianity is another matter. Is there an authentic Christian voice crying in our wilderness? Is there a Christian word that can be spoken? Is there a Christian word that can be heard? “Does a tree falling in an uninhabited forest . . . ?”

Hall’s premise is that Christians engage the world. “Unlike other religions that draw their converts away from this world, a faith informed by this (Christian) tradition . . . constrains the community of discipleship to enter into its historical situation with a new kind of openness, attentiveness and compassion.” We must share our faith with the world “by word and deed.”

This raises the perpetually recurring issue for us, which Hall speaks of as text and context. We have a text – not just the Bible and the Prayer Book, but a whole tradition of belief and practice. We also have a context – the world around us. Internationally, that is post-colonialism, the fearful conflicts among religions in Africa and the Near East, the post Cold War ascendancy of the United States and China, and to a lesser degree Iran. Closer to home, it is the secular materialism of American culture, in which all religious affiliation is in decline but we are becoming more religiously and ethnically pluralistic, a society in which the new convention is to be “very spiritual but not religious.” Can we be true to our text and engage with this context at the same time?

There has always been a tension between our text and any human context. It may be better when it is explicit as it is today. I have found it harder to make the gospel heard by anyone in a setting where conventional Christianity is the social norm than here where faith is countercultural. It is better shouting faith into the secular void than into the conventional Christian void. The oddness of the words makes people curious if they do not already think they know what they mean. But how shall we go about it? How shall we make the faith understood in our society?

I don’t have answers to that. But I feel pretty sure we have to tell the truth. I cannot expect everyone to connect to God the way I do, but I cannot pretend that my way isn’t my way. Can we be true to our text and engage our context? I desperately hope so. If we are not true to our text, we will not be engaging our context honestly. If we do not engage our context, then we will be false to our text which requires jus this engagement. Jesus called us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” That has never been easy.


Unknown said...

A thought comes to mind when considering the student’s remarks. Jesus was a “lay person” without a specific place of worship walking the countryside stopping at public gatherings, weddings, maybe a pub or two and was pretty effective at spreading the Word.

Bishop Dan said...

The question I have is whether a misson model that worked in the context of 1st century Galilee will work in 21st Century America. It wasn't working in 1st Century Jerusalem, so they formed the Church as an adjunct to the Temple. That model didn't work in Antioch so the Church was dramatically restructured. If we take the 1st century Galilee model as the norm, then we probably shouldn't be blogging.

Spike said...

A few weeks ago, I was in London exploring places and spaces for a pilgrimage our rector and I will lead with high school students in June. Part of our plan is to offer our students the opportunity to encounter some of the heritage and tradition particular to the Episcopal Church. I also want them to participate in ministry while visiting England, and I was led to an interesting parish.

In an affluent neighborhood stands a grand old stone church that immediately evoked in me the sense of holiness you describe experiencing at the Lutheran church. This church in London is filled with holy people, and God's presence is evident, but I didn't meet a priest during my visit.

There are no regularly scheduled worship services in this place anymore. Apparently, owners of the townhouses and high end automobiles lining the street do not often (if ever) visit the church grounds. Much of the expansive nave cannot be used regularly as the cost of heating, air conditioning and even lighting the space would be ridiculous with the tight budget that funds activity at the church.

There is still life in this parish though. The iron gates and massive wooden doors open each day to welcome scores of people into the neighborhood community project, which graciously serves the homeless in and around the area. Food and clothing banks, counseling services, a coffee house and soup kitchen... even art lessons (in a corner of the nave with incredible natural light shielded from drafts by plastic sheeting) offer comfort and joy to all who visit.

The staff are all volunteers, so any monies received go directly to funding the ministry itself. These non-stipendiary staff members are supported by friends, family and their home parishes. To my knowledge, I met no seminary trained theologians that day. One could argue with the student in your discussion that the work of these lay persons is what Christianity is all about.

On the otherhand...

My understanding is that while this parish has no regularly scheduled physical worship services, there is a Priest In Charge. This parish priest has created an online worship schedule and invites "parishioners" to pray at regular times and minister in Christ's name to the community in which they live. The website, posted worship schedule and creative presentations did suggest thoughtful preparation and traditional themes in new media. This cyber church model may be attractive to many who live in a high tech context; however, I can't imagine it being the wave of the future.

Seems to me we need both... well-trained clergy and committed lay folk, and perhaps we all can live in both... sacred physical place and cyber space. I first learned of this ministry through an online search, but the connection wasn't complete until I stepped onto the property and shook hands with (and later hugged) the young, passionate director. Our students are looking forward to stepping into this interesting world and experiencing it for themselves.

As hokey as it sounds, we live in exciting times! What wonderful opportunities are ours to explore ways to share the Good News in a world that still hurts... especially when the technology that enables us to connect with others around the globe can also isolate and cause us to feel more alone than ever.

Bishop Dan said...

JM, your post reminds me of the Scribe of the Kingdom who brings out the old and the new. I remember how the printing press led to Bibles and religious tracts in the Reformation. They painted over murals, threw out altars, and smashed statues. 200 years later, the printed tracts called for bringing back the murals, altars,and statues. Cyber is good, but there may be a gnostic anti-material undercurrent in some of the current innnovations. Still sorting all this out. BTW,a lot of Jesus' teaching was in synagogues, and finally in the Temple. Some was in homes in the context of a religion where home life was ritualized. I might wish we had that part of his context, but we don't.

Nikki said...

Ah... the tension and the delicious ambiguity of it all.

Sometimes deconstruction/decontextualization just goes too far. You can deconstruct anything to the point where it has no theoretical meaning (race, gender, sexuality) and is just a cultural construct, but to do so robs the actual meaning it creates in the lives of individuals. While new media allow new ways to weave our stories, abandoning what has come before leaves out voices, and many of the new media (like blogging for example) become monologues and don't always invite people into conversation.

I struggle with the idea that we no longer need buildings. In the last few years, I've come to appreciate my own need for sacred spaces; perhaps I just lack the creativity necessary to turn all public houses into sacred space. On the other hand, it is absolutely imperative to me that a building not be the only place where we are church; the activity of "being church" simply must exceed the confines of the property line. But, I need a place to "do church" and be religious.

And, similarly - while I understand the decentralization of training, and the appeal of OJT, I think we shouldn't be so quick to throw out formal education - especially in the priesthood. The formation that comes from being in community with others who are pursuing similar vocation as you can't be underestimated. The diversity of gifts, interests, insights, grappling, and changing that happen in community with others (regardless of field of training) is hugely important. While local relationships are important and can be incredibly formative, I don't want my surgeon to have only trained with other surgeons in the area, and I feel quite similarly about my priest. A deacon on the other hand... now there's a person who I want to be sure is well acquainted with local issues and needs.

That all said, we must make darned sure we don't make idols of either buildings or credentials. Maybe what we need is more deacons to make sure nobody on either the clergy or the laity side get too comfy with those things and to make sure that all the voices are being heard.

Matthew said...

Most of the emergent churches I know have buildings, some of them gigantic (though not all emergent communities planned on having them). Maybe the holy spirit is calling the emergent church to own buildinigs? And, most of the really influential emergent leaders (those that write books, DVD's) have solid theological training. People like Brian McClaren (who coined the term emergent), Joel Osteen and Rob Bell. Rob Bell regularly speaks to sold out SRO crowds on college campuses. Why do people pay good money to go hear what he has to say? The real question for the college kid in the group is who he would rather talk to in a bar -- someone like Rob Bell, who is inspiring, or some dolt like me.
I do think the emergent movement has done more than we have to reach out to young people and we could learn from that. There is nothing wrong with talking in bars, as Bishop Dan has done in Austin, NV. Now, it may be that the theological training we provide is not relevant to today's world but I don't think it all ought to be OTJ.