Sunday, November 01, 2015

9 Ways to Save the Church (Really!)

Christianity in western culture is struggling. We're not quite sure how to be evangelical in life-giving ways. In a post-Christendom era, we're aware of, and agree with, much of the post-colonial critique of evangelization. Too much of the missionary effort did more than carry Christ to the world. It also forced the colonial culture on others, and to ill effect.

But the abuse of something is never reason to disallow its proper use. Even if some kinds of evangelization have been tried and found wanting, there still remain faithful ways to share the good news. Evangelizing can be done with integrity. If you have good news, it makes complete sense to share it. In fact the only thing that makes little or no sense is to keep truly good news to yourself.

So we offer a non-exhaustive list of best practices for any Christian community (mainline Protestants in particular) to improve their evangelism.

Go be with people

It's important for people to have chances to be able to be around other people that are different than themselves without necessarily having an "agenda or a cause". Just be there and have an organic real experience and see where it goes. This is not going in order to serve or do a good deed but to have fellowship with others. Keep showing up and see what happens. Probably 95% of evangelism is just showing up.

In particular, go be with people at least a couple of removes from yourself in terms of cultural distance. If we go be with people too near us, they're probably already Christian, speak our language, and of the same class or economic group. Choose people to be with who are at least two removes away from you in terms of language, culture, ethnicity, etc. 

When you are with people, don't patronize them

Although there are many notable exceptions, our experience is that frequently what people in our congregations see as their response to the poor is to see the poor as clients for their charity, rather than living in faith community among the poor or facilitating the fullness of community among the poor. As a result we have many examples of places where the poor will come to the Lutheran Church for food and clothing but go to church down the street at the Pentecostal church, because at the Lutheran Church they are poor people, but at the Pentecostal Church they are just people. (excerpt from an ELCA study on ministry with those in poverty)

If, as a Christian community, you are more frequently serving at a soup kitchen rather than eating at one, or giving food to a food pantry rather than hanging out with people who get food from food pantries, then you are still putting yourself in the patron position.  The only solution is to take the risky step of accompanying others in their lives, breaking out of the patron-client system by transcending it.

Give the faith away, literally

Let go of being right. Admit you may not know what you believe. Hold the faith you have lightly. This way of being in the world is often criticized as relativism. And it is close. But you can have strong faith that isn't forceful. The freest faith, the faith most likely to attract, is the faith that is so free it can die, dissipate, spread like seed into the soil, and wait on God to give the growth.

I find the insights of Gianni Vattimo on this particularly helpful, that secularization is in fact the fulfillment of the central Christian message, and prepares us for a new mode of Christianity.

Have more babies

It sounds funny to recommend as a strategy giving birth to more children, but the stats are in, and it's pretty clear. When Christianity grows somewhere in the world, a large part of the growth is birth rates.

Become less but also more clerical

The best evangelical movements in history have had not one but two things going for them. They've had amazing, charismatic leaders, and they've had a widespread base of people sharing the news at the grassroots level. Part of the problem with mainline Protestants in particular is that they are good at neither of these. Because of our worry over the abuses of star preachers in the evangelical and prosperity gospel world, mainline Protestants tend to shoot down or undermine the ministry of charismatic leaders. Simultaneously, given our commitment to a democratic, grassroots faith, we haven't been particularly good at evangelism among the average members of our community. A big part of our effort to become better at evangelism will be to support charismatic leaders AND celebrate faith sharing at the small local level. The two do not need to be in competition with one another. It's deadly to be good at neither.

Become less but also more theological

One of the greatest gifts the Lutheran church brings to the global oecumene is its profound theology. One of the greatest weaknesses the Lutheran church has is the complexity of its theological expression. It takes very careful and patient reflection to write theology that is both profound and simple, paradoxical yet clear.

Social Justice

I can't speak for every denomination, but I can say that my own denomination, the ELCA, has some spectacular social statements. It rolls up its sleeves and advocates for social justice.
We advocate for immigrants and refugees, organize social service for the poor, work to reduce mass incarceration, welcome the LGBTQ community and advocate for marriage equality. Yet we seem to be uncomfortable celebrating this social justice work and perceiving it as evangelism. But look at the recent trips of Pope Francis. He knows, and he is wise, that one of the best forms of evangelism is to proclaim the gospel as it applies to the real lives of people, in particular the marginalized.

Here we can learn from the global south and global Christianity. Many people worldwide live in dire poverty and growing new churches are succeeding because they “fulfill emerging social needs.” People experience healing, meet the Christ of the Scriptures in the ministry of the church, and see firsthand the power of God.

Swim in the River

We put lovely aquariums by the river and expect fish to jump in. That's the truth. A big part of better evangelism in a post-Christendom era is repairing assumptions. How did we ever come to the conclusion that "mission" meant people would come to us? 

It's easier to let people come to us. If we do so, they come on our terms, and have to conform to our culture and context. But if the fish are already swimming in a wide open river, the reality and miracle is that periodically, a few actually do jump over from the river to the aquarium. In a post-Christendom context, I think the risk and joy of missiology would be to empty the aquarium into the river.

Joy in the Spirit

There's no getting around this last fact, that Christians are by and large missionary when people experience their joy and their love. You can tell when there is a good spirit in a place, when people are overwhelmed by thanksgiving, and joy, and love. It's a charism. And although you can't prescribe joy per se, you can practice it. It looks like letting go. It looks like a dance. It looks like openness to the other, genuine openness to becoming who they are and joining them in it. It's how we know Christ was real. He took real joy in becoming who we are, joining us in it. This is why we can have a laser-like focus on mission, because we are simply joining Christ's mission, of restoring to humanity what has already always been called to be--children of God.

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