I haven’t been very regular in my posting lately. I observe that just as my last post begins with a quote from Stanley (Hauerwas), while this one will draw – partly – from a quote from another Stanley (Fish). In his The Trouble with Principle, Fish writes:
“What is surprising is to find those same arguments in the writings of those who proclaim themselves unhappy with the marginalization of religious discourse and propose to bring it back into the center. This is the project of Daniel O. Conkle, who begins a recent essay by observing that the doctrine of religious equality – all religions are to be accorded equal respect, and the state should not ‘prefer one religion over another’ – brings with it ‘an underlying predicate… that religion does not matter, at least not in the public domain.’ The equality religions enjoy under this understanding, Conkle complains, is an equality of irrelevance because when ‘equality implies that religions should be insulated from normative evaluation… We are driven to the view that religion is merely… a matter of private and individual taste.’ Once religion is thus trivialized, the way is open to arguing, as many have, that religious reasons should not be ‘the basis for a political decision.’” (p.187-8)
I came across this paragraph this morning while waiting for my oil to be changed. My thoughts went far afield to a question our churches are being asked. Though it comes in more than one form, the thrust of the question is, “What is your church doing that your community would miss if your church no longer existed?”
I think I understand this question. It’s asked from the standpoint of effectiveness, of “making a difference.” I know that language. I want to “make a difference.” I want the churches I lead to “make a difference.” One reason we’re being asked this question, I believe, is because our churches have become so ingrown that we often lack concern for our host community, settling instead for simply doing what we’ve always done. We’ve functioned pretty much as religious clubs.
In response to this question I wonder whether the most important difference we make is anything the world, speaking on its own terms and from its own point of view could ever understand. If we align ourselves with the model of church as community service organization (a version of the therapeutic church writ large?), we are mostly comprehensible to the non-church community. We’re the folks who help children, feed the hungry, give out school supplies, and care for the sick and dying. All that sounds good to me. Each of those things sound like something a Christian would do. But although I believe in the universal sinfulness of humans, I don’t think that sinfulness makes Christians unique in any of these activities. We are not the only ones who are compassionate, caring and helpful. We are not the only ones who are nice. We are not the only ones who volunteer in schools. We are certainly not the only ones who invest in our communities to make them better places to live.
All of these good activities (and I am not damning with faint praise here) make perfect sense to most Americans. Sure, there are some Ebenezer Scrooge types among us who are hard hearted and selfish, unwilling to lift a finger to help anyone. But in my experience there are lots of kind, helpful, benevolent people around, and their Christianity (or lack thereof) may or may not be the main determinant of their action. Put another way, none of these good activities are peculiar to the church. None are unique to our mission or calling. All are perfectly comprehensible apart from faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Is there anything that is unique to the church when it comes to blessing our community? I think there is. First, we live as a colony of sinners in this world. Not very impressive sounding, is it, especially given my already mentioned conviction about the universality of sin. The difference is that we recognize that we are sinners. Not just “imperfect people” (after all, as everyone tells us, “We’re only human; no one is perfect”) but sinners, people who have been alienated from God by thought, word and deed. And we acknowledge that reality.
Second, while confessing our sin, we don’t let our sin define our identity. While it is demonstrably true of us, it is not the most important truth. The most important truth is that Jesus has lived, died and risen for us, and we belong to him. We have come to belong to him not through our actions, whether actions conceived in terms of personal morality, or responsible citizenship, but purely through grace. As sinners saved by grace, we can demonstrate to the community the reality of that grace by loving each other through difficulties, hardships and even offenses.
Finally, we live by faith. We bless our community not only by doing good, but by actively and publicly trusting God. We obey God even when we don’t see how things can turn out. We openly live as if were God not to come through, we would be sunk. Put another way, we pray for the Holy Spirit to do works in us and through us that will provoke the community to ask questions, questions to which we can only answer, “Jesus!”
These three ways of blessing our community make no sense to our secular, political world as it’s now constituted. If the world were to overhear us talking this way, they would likely feel justified in judging us irrelevant to the world, engaged in mere religious talk. Modern liberal politics is quite happy to tolerate religion that is purely private, religion that leaves all real world significance to the (secular) Magistrate (speaking in Lockean language). As we take up works of mercy we start nibbling at the fences they’ve put up, especially if we meddle with the boundaries and regulations they’ve erected. As we live lives of full-on devotion to Jesus, unafraid to bring our Jesus-talk into public, we might begin to encounter the reality of the rationale behind Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 3:15. If you’re curious what that is, check the context of that very sometime.
I’m one of the pastors at Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. For nearly 40 years our congregation did a summer program — that was top notch in many ways. We started every day with devotions, we ended every day with devotions. We built each week around a different spiritual emphasis. We had art, drama, recreation, music, math, history – everything you could imagine. And it was a good thing. But (and this is a big but) over the course of those years the graduation rate in our neighborhood got worse (it is now around 19 percent). We didn’t pay much attention to that. We just felt like we were doing a good thing (this is my second tenure at the church – I was here in 1986-1991, and then I came back in 2003). And it wasn’t a bad thing. But it did force us to ask ourselves the question of what are we really doing here. And two years ago we changed dramatically and drastically what we are doing. Two years ago we sent out what we called Roving Disciples (six youth and two adults, all from our neighborhood) and this summer it was nearly 40 youth and adults. They had three jobs – 1) to listen for and name the gifts, talents, dreams and passions that God has put in the lives of our neighbors; 2) to lay hands on them and bless them (literally); and, 3) To connect them with others who share the same gift, dream, passion or talent.
We have only been doing this a couple of years – but the blessings that have become evident as a result of this work have overwhelmed us. Will it help with the graduation rate? We don’t know. But we do know that it feels like we are doing what we, as the Church, have a unique calling to do that wouldn’t happen otherwise (anybody, I suppose, can offer a class in music — but who is going to lay hands on you and bless you?).
Thanks for the report, Michael!