Preliminaries: Here's my emotinoal pattern with House of Bishops. For weeks beforehand, I grumble about having to attend. I have work to do in Nevada. Then I get to HOB and immediately realize how lonely my vocation is. Being bishop is like being ET, the only one of my kind for a long, long way. Then I arrive at HOB and begin throwing my arms around and clinging to everyone I see. It's a community of my own kind. Then a few days into it, I remember I am an introvert and all this bonding makes me feel irrationally depressed and utterly out of place. So this time, I did the first step -- grumbled. Now I am happy to be here. But I'm taking the second step slower, pacing myself to avoid the spiritual equivalent of the pancreatic dump that follows a sugar rush. Still it is very good to be with these folks -- an altogether wise and holy assembly. I still feel that I don't quite fit but they accept me anyway.
About not quite fitting, we are staying and meeting at the Ritz Carlton. I am considerably more at home at the Best Western. But I guess the Best Western didn't have room for all of us.
Today, we had a series of presentations on evangelism that actually turned controversial --though this controversy will never make it into the popular press or the Foxy blogs. On the one side we had the Missioner for Congregational Vitality and the Communications Officer for The Episcopal Church. They presented the first edition of the new Evangelism Tool Kit, complete with all sorts of sociological data about what the unchurched are seeking, what they cherish and what they despise from their previous religous experiences, what they think of us before we meet, how they perceive us on first impression, and if they stay, what makes them stay. It was full of surprises and practical, helpful information. This was such a striking contrast to the persuasive and winsome presentations of two academicians at our last HOB who basically said, "It's over. Just close the doors and cheer for the 'spiritual but not religious'." This presentation was pretty darn hopeful in my book.
Then came the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA who was one of the most powerful and persuasive preachers I've heard in a long time. He didn't have any use for the tool kit or sociology or marketing or any of that. He also thought the seekers were seeking the wrong thing and the finders (folks who stayed in the chruch) had found the wrong thing. He insisted that we need to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ which is the best news ever -- but it turns our lives upside down instead of patching them up as many of the seekers would prefer.
So there it was: one group proposing a medium; the other, proposing a message. As for me, I agree 100% with the ELCA PB that our messsage is Jesus. One could read our Episcopal sociology as advocating our vaguely spiritual message of muddle. I am with the Lutheran voice that we need to state our case boldly and without equivocation. However, rejecting 21st Century communication insights is not necessary to a faithful proclamation of the good news.
We need to know how desperate people are to experience grace -- not a dogmatic sermon but a welcome, an unconditional acceptance. In a nutshell, that was the moral of the story in the Evangelism Tool Kit. People need a safe place for themselves and their children. They need uncondtional acceptance, which is what Jesus is all about but churches are not always about. When we church people are feeling secure about our vital statistics, we are apt not to welcome people at all. When we are nervous about our vital statistics, we are apt to latch onto them conditionally, as pew fodder or pledge units. Grace is welcoming people absolutely unconditionally to show them God's love regardless of whether we ever expect to see them again. Paradoxically, that will win more lasting relationships than a sales pitch for "joining our church." And proclaiming Jesus does not mean shouting about a moral or spititual hurdle for people to jump over. "Believe this or die!" It means proclaiming God's infinite mercy made manifest in a human being who shares our life.
The argument over impassioned gospel proclamation versus engaging the culture where it is goes back to Tertullian vs. Cyril of Jerusalem (3rd C) and carried on into the 20th Century theological dispute between Barth and Tillich. It's a generative tension. God bless it. I pray that we will proclaim the gospel boldly and faithfully to the people who are seeking salvation in terms they can hear and embrace until they are embraced by Christ himself.