As I checked a friend’s profile on a social networking website (a friend that I had known from Sunday school), his “religious views” caught my eye. He offered a single word: Why.
His question illustrates the skepticism the church encounters as it seeks new ways to tell the old story. We preach law, gospel, and everything in between, but I often wonder how we neglect to proclaim the fundamental “why” of the message we bring. In a world where secular and parochial life are increasingly indistinguishable, where the marketplace of ideas offers any fruit for the consumption of the spiritual seeker, the burden is falling more and more to tell not only of the story (which, for many, has already been told) but also of its relevance.
Polarization and its Discontents
The burden weighs heavier as more antagonistic and polarizing voices join religious dialogue. Glenn Beck has all but taken on the mantle of the religious right with his speech given just this past week at the Lincoln memorial, becoming a figure that collapses all world systems — church, government, God, man — into a brand with which one can agree or disagree. The choice is given as in Deuteronomy 30: “I have set before you blessings and curses.” It’s getting harder and harder to tell which brings life and which brings death. People from the most radical corners of any religious tradition make it tempting to do away with religious dialogue altogether: the idea of God is twisted into a platform for one’s own vanity.
We preach law, gospel, and everything in between, but I often wonder how we neglect to proclaim the fundamental “why” of the message we bring.
Even the institutional churches are no exception. How much time has been wasted by mainlines such as the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches in arbitrating disagreements over adiaphora? Herbert Chilstrom, the former presiding minister of the ELCA, wrote recently of the sexuality debate that he is both sad and relieved by those leaving: sad that it was not intended, but relieved that “the ELCA can get on with our primary mission of telling everyone — everyone — ‘Jesus loves you. You are welcome in this church.’ ”1 This message, of love and grace, is both the message that needs to be heard and the message is not being heard. I understand the position of the skeptics: if division and judgment are all the church is, then Why?
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center adds some nuance to our question.2 Though it confirms that young adults today attend religious services less often than their parents or grandparents at comparable times in their lives, it also finds that their religious belief is more or less the same. Though practice diminishes, adults under the age of 30 report that they are just as likely to believe in life after death, heaven, hell, and miracles as later generations. The survey also revealed that more people in younger generations understand that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of faith.” Finally, the survey suggests that this trend stretches all the way back to the beginning data was available, with those born before 1928. The study reveals that while religious belief has been maintained through the generations, religious practice has diminished. The trend indicates that it will not soon level.
The Future of the Visible Church
Indeed, the body of Christ is already being challenged, and we must wonder what shape the body of Christ can take if practice dwindles to zero. It appears that the body of Christ itself is at stake. As ministers, our imagination pushes us to the limits of what ministry can be — and with each innovation, new church bodies are born from discord. As time is taken forming and reforming institutions, I wonder if it could be that our ministries can no longer afford the bonds of an institutional church body. Not since the earliest days of the church has the earthly institution of the kingdom been so radically undefined, and the thought is alarming. Yet we are reminded, “What no eyes has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Could it be that what God has prepared is so radical that ministers are called in greater numbers to re-imagine the church itself and re-form the possibilities of ministry in our changing world? I think that it is possible, and can already be seen in emergent practices where the Eucharist is too divisive to celebrate and God the Father is too offensive to name.
This is a particularly frightening thought for a tradition that finds comfort in order, in its Confessions, in its heritage and history. The Augsburg Confession records that “one holy Church is to continue forever, … the congregation of the saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (VII.1). Indeed, the Confession records that the church was instituted so that we might obtain faith through hearing the gospel and participating in the sacraments (V.1). It is through the teaching of the church that we have learned to have faith in the gospel and the sacraments so that we all can lift up and support the church and the body of Christ. But with so many different understandings and with such institutional division between understandings, I’m unconvinced that our church can really be called “one.” The unity described above in the Confessions is one in which the gospel of Christ is taught and heard and the presence of Christ is made real with all those in the body. Can our minds and hearts expand to such a point that, in our preaching and teaching and ministry, we are willing to explore new ways of being Christ in the world?
Perhaps we as ministers need to prepare for one of the most radical re-presentations of the body of Christ in our time — the end of the current institution of the church and the beginning of the new one.
Perhaps we as ministers need to prepare for one of the most radical re-presentations of the body of Christ in our time — the end of the current institution of the church and the beginning of the new one. Perhaps it is necessary for a rethinking of how the gospel is rightly preached, how the sacraments are rightly administered. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes, who “saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecc. 1:14). I am reminded of Christ who calls us to leave all things of the world behind, even to hate our families, if we are to truly be his disciples (Lk 14:25f.). What if the church is to become something that we do not recognize as “the church?” It’s a scary thought — especially for me, as grace is felt at its strongest while singing “This is the Feast” from Setting 2 of the Lutheran Book of Worship. But to take seriously the calling of Christ to “follow him,” perhaps we all need to be prepared to radically change the way we understand God’s calling and institution in order to be the body of Christ on earth, prepared even to leave those familiar songs and structures behind. If this is true, I hope that Christ pulls me close every once and a while and shows me his wounds — just so I can be sure.
Even with the current challenge, there is a Lutheran hope for resurrection and trust in God’s promises that will guide the church in its rocky future. Perhaps we might channel Luther as at Wittenberg as we seek new meaning and new relevance for a body that doesn’t yet know its features. We might trust that in the face of destruction and death we are really being presented an opportunity for new life. We die to death and sin and find something even more majestic than we could possibly have imagined. Whatever the future for our church, I pray that we trust the Spirit that guides God’s people, regardless of whether or not they agree or are sure that it is the best way. God often asks the impossible of us; perhaps we are simply called to listen.
See Herbert W. Chilstrom, “My View: Questions for those leaving ELCA.” http://mankatofreepress.com/letters/x2014324643/My-View-Questions-for-those-leaving-ELCA
Pew Research Center, “Religion Among the Millenials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional In Other Ways” (Washington, D.C.: the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2010).