I’m tired of the blame.
The health and vitality of the The Episcopal Church and the Mainline generally is an oversimplified story of the 20th Century, too easily shouldered on the leadership of the 21st. It’s always the politics or the practice or the beliefs or the Bible or the liturgy or anything else ad nauseam, but never is it the fighting. Never is it the bickering or the certainty of well-intentioned finger-pointers. Never is it the schismatics who stomp out of the church or the timid who sneak away. Nor is it the rowdy recruiters trying to squeeze blood from a stone, mistaking their own wounds for the miracle.
It is ironic, then, that in this postmodern age in which we are so much more aware of complexity, that we fall so hard for the simple.
Decline of the mainline, and The Episcopal Church is well-documented. It is also a favorite canard of the angry, seeking every opportunity to abuse the faithful. But it is also the favorite of the zealot, eager to drive us closer to where we ought to be. I know I so often fall in that latter camp.
But I am not writing about church decline. This is not a post full of statistics or one that hopes to make the reader desperately see that we are on the Titanic and the iceberg is in sight. You’ve read plenty of those.
You’ve also read plenty of posts about how great everything is and how we just need to love our tradition more. Don’t change a thing! they say. All we need to do is recruit new people. I’m as weary of that ridiculousness as you are.
This is a post that invites us to simply look past the data and the innuendo and name what I have experienced of church. Churches in rural and urban environments; in the north and in the south; in happy times, and more often, depressed and fearful times. And what I’ve observed has been consistent:
- We don’t really get why we’re a church and
- Our experience is more important to us than our compassion.
These two attributes are deeply connected and not easily named (though I’m trying my best to do that very thing). No mission statement or workshop of the congregation can magically get any lifelong Christian to suddenly understand the faith they’ve inherited. For many, 70 years of unexamined faith is terrifying to discover about themselves, and worse, their parents and elders who taught them.
a main source of conflict
Perhaps the genesis of conflict comes from the embedded “core message” of the gospel.
The church of my childhood is infatuated with The Great Commandment, given in Mark as an extension of the Sh’ma (Hear O Israel), but heard by us as “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the closest we get to a core value from Jesus, and is easy justification to see the purpose of church as worship and practicing radical hospitality. It jibes with the way Jesus treats people in each account.
Many evangelicals and church planters see a different message as central, preferring the conclusion to Matthew, which we call The Great Commission. It includes the great phrase: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” which can be understood as a direct mission to gettin’ those pesky “unchurched” into the Jesus camp.
The church unwittingly sets these two up against each other, perhaps slipping them conveniently into the established frame of Catholic vs. Protestant. But these aren’t conflicting calls. Nor does the former serve the latter: The Great Commandment isn’t justification for The Great Commission, or even its internal marching orders.
They are both about loving and sharing. Sharing something important to us; something we believe would be important to them. But not because we love the thing. Our love is merely the proof of its value. We don’t seek to convert others because GOD is keeping score and that’s the only way we get our reward. We share in something that delights us in hopes that it will delight another, too.
Like when we discover some really good bread, and we tear off a small chunk for ourselves, giving the rest to the person sitting at our table, saying to them
You have to try this!
Because we know they haven’t truly lived until they’ve tasted it.
These two teachings are both radical calls to something we are really, really, really terrible at: putting someone else’s needs first. Not our desire for them, or our control over what they experience; it is our hope that they discover their own experience.
My own children are fiercely independent. And more importantly, they have incredible imaginations. My son can follow an ant as it crosses the kitchen floor, squatting like a catcher and pointing it out to us. Otherwise, his eyes are transfixed.
His formation comes from these experiences and opportunities that he discovers for himself or we cultivate. So often, these opportunities for all of our children are squashed or eliminated. Replaced with a Funnel and Facts, intellectually force-feeding the justifications for GOD, but never encouraging the experience of GOD. We drive our children out of church and wonder why they never return.
We do this for good reasons, of course. But we don’t do it out of a great sense of GOD’s purpose. It’s all practical. Intellectual, actually. Justifications again.
It isn’t really about compassion, either. It isn’t about the children. And it isn’t about the stranger. It’s all about us.
The demographic data, which shows a stunning lack of diversity in The Episcopal Church, often sited as proof of the evil of inclusion (which takes a little twisting in the brain to make sense), cannot prove the error of our theology, because the theology gives room for lots of belief. But it does prove, perhaps our graver sin: that we welcome people to join us intellectually. But we struggle to both welcome diversity in practice, or encourage diversity in our communities. Our focus is not on showing compassion to those outside the tribe, but comfort to those within it. We unwittingly turn a ‘We’ into an ‘Us and Them’.
Two recent posts at Episcopal Cafe, which highlight what we all know to be true: we are caught in a death-spiral of protecting the failing while not allowing ourselves to invest in the new. This was inspired in part by the question asked on the same site: “Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church Plant more churches?” This question digs deeply into our embedded sense of identity and purpose, which is why our current challenges are so frustrating and confusing. They conflict with, what is for many, the very nature of our church.
This is the macro-level, big picture example of a universal phenomenon. Out of fear for our own present experience, we reject what is the fundamental call to compassion. We aren’t called to obsess about our own experience, but to help encourage the experience of others. To share good bread with them, not horde it for ourselves. Not worrying about whether there will be bread for us tomorrow.
We’re those Children of Israel out in the wilderness, saving up the Manna, then watching it spoil. Then we go back out on the Sabbath to double-check that GOD actually meant what GOD said.
I don’t believe it is as simple as closing some churches to free up cash; though there is much more theological and Scriptural backing for pruning the bush so that the whole plant might flourish: that our whole health is dependent on cutting the unhealthy branches which sap resources from the healthy. It may, in the end, be the only means of long-term growth and stability.
What I see as the more important solution is not found in the gimmicks or the games. It isn’t found in techniques or rules changes. It isn’t found in giving our seminarians more classes to take or in consolidating struggling dioceses. It isn’t found in listening only to bishops in wealthy, urban dioceses, or pitting them up against bishops from the poor, rural ones.
It is found in embracing compassion. New churches thrive in already thriving, hopeful communities. Churches decline where legacy and stability is more important than growth and vitality. The rational, political calculation is to breed a more compassionate church. It is the only way that the legacy congregations can thrive in the 21st Century alongside those new church plants in growing communities.
Unsurprisingly, it is also the theological, scriptural response to the struggles of our diverse communities. It is the only way we can respond to the pain in those areas experiencing continued economic depression and job loss; hunger and persistent racial segregation. The only way we can put ourselves in those places in which our compassion is needed, but rarely seen; in those places of great economic or ethnic growth, but no community to engage.
Most importantly, it is the only way the church can engage in those spheres and with those people we claim to care about. The only way we can fulfill the missio dei and be sacramentally present so that Christ can be revealed in us.
My vision for our future is to fully reject our consumer impulses and embrace a compassionate love that consistently reveals GOD’s love and mercy. A love that informs not only our good work in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but in our every practice: in our buildings and bank accounts: in our worship and in our evangelism. It is found in a desire to share bread, not to sustain ourselves or our family. Not to be hospitable or kind. But because that bread is so good and there is enough. Plenty to share.
it is about us
In truth, the problem is us. It always has been. We’ve failed to see compassion as our most important trait, or any trait of real value. We prefer certainty and strength; efficiency and consistency.
And it is about our critics, far too eager to criticize; not critique or help, but destroy and punish.
It is about our friends who are struggling themselves and confused about their own way forward.
It is about the more recently mighty, which now find themselves struggling to prove their approaches have been any better, really at making disciples. New buildings, yes. “Winning” Christians from other denominations in some sick, Darwinian version of the anti-gospel.
It is about the millions of disaffected, abused, punished, seeking people who want to love, who need compassion, but have so frequently only received punishment. Who only hear the voices of Christian hate. Or more recently, are told that hateful speech is a religious right, but compassionate speech is “political”.
It is about weak leadership who has, for the last 70 years, struggled to preach honestly about Scripture: in many cases refusing to challenge the congregation to receive what we receive in seminary.
It is about bishops and judicatory bodies who have lacked the foresight or the political will to go against the confused and misled congregations and give true priority to health and vitality over the false gospel of independence and outsourced ministry.
It is about us. All of us. If you have ever darkened the door of a church. If your parents have ever darkened the door of the church. If you have ever called yourself a Christian. It is about us.
We want a faith that is easy, but this one isn’t. We want our solutions to be simple, but none of the good ones are. We want to worship without thinking and think without believing and believe without doing and do without praying and pray without worshiping. We want it all and we want it without the baggage that comes with listening and trusting and believing.
Most of all, I think, we want faith to look like the faith of our idealized grandmother, who wrote names in the family Bible, and went to church each week, dragging her children in tow. Who was so kind and generous, bringing her best recipe to the potluck and wearing the best hats. She would harmonize her part of the four and would actually giggle when we would sing her favorite hymn, which was never “Amazing Grace” or “The Church is One Foundation” but “In the bleak mid winter”. Who we would watch give groceries right out of the bag on the way out of the supermarket simply because someone asked her for help. That amazing woman, whose faith is unfathomable to us, inspires us. She defines faith for us.
And it is that faith we refuse. For us, we make it too difficult to replicate: a faith like a 3D printer. Too perfect. Too analyzed. Too much about the recipe. Like the pious young man who thinks he has the formula and Jesus shows him that a formula isn’t enough.
It is not the formula or the faith, it is that spirit of compassion. That loving that comes so deep from within that it cannot possibly originate with us. A compassion too natural that we don’t know how it comes, but it does. A compassion so rebellious it is marveled at. A compassion so dangerous we worry that the recipient can even understand it. A compassion so like the compassion of GOD.
That is how we “fix” the church. A church that reflects the missio dei, that reveals Christ to the world. That actually looks like we believe Christ when He tells Peter “Feed my sheep.”
A faith that can’t be taught through our brains, but experienced through our compassion. Our compassion given and received. Compassion given to us easily like a piece of bread, but taken for the most precious treasure.