I have had the honor of participating in some truly wonderful conversations lately with smart thinkers from across the Episcopal Church, orthodox men and women who see a future for Anglicanism to be hopeful for, in this country and abroad. The shape of things to come has not been written in stone, but there is a movement brewing out there, encompassing young Christians who are united in a love of God and an intuitive sense that things like liturgy and sacraments actually matter, that this is where the action is, and that we can begin to seek and pursue this future right now without worrying about the ongoing squabbles and misadventures that occupy the ecclesiastical powers and principalities.
These conversations have gotten me thinking about what the Church of the future will look like if revitalization is to take place. I am convinced that the answer to our crisis of shrinking numbers in the pews and shrinking influence in the culture is not to be found in the glossy, high powered, corporatized megachurch approach that has engulfed American Evangelicalism in the last thirty years; neither is it to be found in the doe eyed, gooey anti-gospel of moral ambiguity and pop psychology that has been the wheelhouse of American Liberal Christianity for the last fifty years. I have no crystal ball, nor any pretension of being a guru, but I strongly believe that a revitalized Church of the future will have three important characteristics. It will be Christ focused, doctrinally centered, and pastorally driven.
What do the church growth movement and liberalism have in common? Very little on the surface. It is difficult to imagine what Rick Warren and Gene Robinson would have to talk about if they were placed in a room together. But in fact, while their projects are very different, both share an impressive lack of interest in the cross. This is not to say that either Warren or Robinson lack a genuine belief in Jesus Christ, but rather that the work of Jesus is largely ancillary to what they are trying to do. They want to repair the Church which they believe to be a failing institution, and the way to repair the Church is to focus on the Church. How can we make the Church more attractive? How can we get more people in the door? Who should we target? What should we say? How should we dress and act and think? What music should we play? What politics should we promote? How can WE be the Church that WE want to be so that other people will want to join US?
The leap of faith that we require is not a leap to new and exotic methods of making the Church sizzle and pop. Rather, what we need is a Church that takes seriously the fact that our entire reason for existing is to point away from ourselves and towards the cross. Jesus has told us how He will build His Church, and it isn’t through slick marketing or bold new initiatives. It’s through His own blood poured out for us and His Word that calls us into that mystery. We cannot be content simply to invoke Jesus as our friend, our cheerleader, our example, or a guy who gives really great advice. He may be some of those things, but the job of the Church is to point to the cross and the empty tomb. That’s where the truth of Christ is to be realized. The parables, the moral teachings, and all the rest of it don’t even begin to make sense if we do not start and end at the foot of the cross. That is the Gospel.
Everybody loves doctrine, don’t they? Well, no, actually. If you ask anybody who is anybody, they’ll tell you that doctrine is the first thing that the Church ought to get rid of as quickly as possible. It is fun to chide liberals for this sort of thing, but honestly, many self-styled conservatives are just as bad. How many American Evangelical churches today ever use words like “justification” or “atonement” anymore? How many kids come through our pizza-party-ski-trip-caffeine-and-sugar-binge “youth groups” ever hearing about “propitiation” or even “incarnation”?
Doctrine may not be popular but it is essential. Whether we dumb it down or class it up, we’re always teaching something. And what most of our churches are teaching today, liberal or conservative, is that none of this really matters very much. It’s all about your own subjective experience. There is no real content to our faith. That may not be what we are trying to convey, but it is the message that is getting across.
We do not give people enough credit. As Dorothy Sayers so famously wrote, “the dogma is the drama!” It isn’t our job to make it better, to jazz it up, to make it accessible, or any of the rest of it. Our job is to point to Jesus over and over again (see above). And the way we do that is by telling people the truth about Him. And however you slice that, it’s called doctrine. People may not say so if you ask them, but this is what they’re hungry for. They want to know Christ, and the only way they get to know Him is if we speak His Word.
This means first and foremost that the Church in our day must make a radical return to Holy Scripture and take a vastly different approach to preaching. We cannot afford to assume that people know the Gospel, nor can we rely on the kind of erudite story telling that has passed for preaching in the last two generations to get the message across. We need to talk about Jesus, personally and passionately, but to root every word of it in the actual text of Scripture. We need to reclaim the language of doctrine. This does not have to be dry or academic. You would be amazed what doing something as simple as telling people that the Old Testament is as much about Jesus as the New Testament will do for them. I’ve seen just saying that much change people’s lives.
Parish churches are shrinking and dying, and one of our knee-jerk reactions has been to assume that the Church of tomorrow won’t need parishes and won’t have full time pastors. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need pastors more than ever. And we need them to know and understand what pastoring actually is.
There are two equally unhelpful models of pastor that have become endemic to the crisis in the Episcopal Church today. The first is the therapist/lifecoach model, whereby the priest is simply there to lead you along the path to self actualization. The long suffering notion that being pastoral is just about being nice has to be overthrown. Equally problematic, though, is the idea of the pastor as the social justice advocate. This is not to say that social justice is bad or that preachers should avoid preaching on issues that are difficult politically, but there is a model of preacher that says that the whole purpose of preaching is to rile people up, to stick it to them and make them uncomfortable unless and until they adopt the right politics that all right thinking people hold. The Gospel is neither self-actualization nor social change. It is the life altering news that God became a man and died so that you and I might live, and that in the wake of that, everything is forgiven and all things are made new.
Pastoring is about applying the Gospel to people’s lives. It is both an art and a science. Preaching from the pulpit is all well and good, but the impact of preaching comes out in the Word that the pastor speaks in relationship with those entrusted to his care. The “cure of souls” as it was once called is the primary work of the pastor, to know the Scriptures backwards and forwards and to bring the right word into the room when a new baby is born or a loved one is dying.
Because it is a task of some intimacy, the pattern of pastoral ministry since the early Church has been communal. The parish is the center and focal point of a common life that the pastor plays an integral role in. It is, I believe, the loss of community and the atomization of the culture that has done more than anything to destroy our parishes. We live in a society in which place no longer matters, in which dependency on one another is seen as a vice rather than a virtue, and in which the primary mode of social interaction is commercial. The cards are stacked against the success of parishes, but this is all the more reason for the Church to invest in building parishes and creating pastoral relationships. The community used to create a comfortable cushion in which pastoral work could take place. Now, in the absence of that cushion, we must not only build pastoral relationships but create community as well. We do so not for its own sake but for the sake of creating a space in which authentic conversion and repentance can take place.
How the Church can or will fund the ongoing work of its pastors remains uncertain. Some careful thinking must go into this problem. But the one thing that is certain is that we cannot afford to allow pastoral work to go by the wayside or to be transformed into something done by proxy rather than in the context of relationship. The standard now in the Episcopal Church has become rectorships of five years or less, hardly enough time to even begin to build the kind of trust that is needed. Many parishes opt now for part time priests since they can no longer afford full time, but that is an oxymoron. How can you pastor people only part of the time? Thus, many “part time” priests are part time in name only.
On one level, all of these ideas are quite simple and could be applied in any age. Nevertheless, it is in our own age and place that the need has become acute. There is no silver bullet for church growth, but if we start to think along these lines, we will see God bless our church, in one way or another, because these are not ultimately methods for us to reclaim the Church but ways in which the Lord of the Church has promised to claim His Bride. There is only one doctrine and only one pastor and it is Jesus Christ. May He set us free from captivity to our fears and bring us into the light of His truth.