Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Preaching the gospel for 21st century cut through: tradition

Ruminating after a week spent north of here, a few posts down, I raised the question - again! - of what the gospel means in the 21st century. What is good news for a society in which many people cheerfully ignore God because, it seems, there is much to be cheerful about? And God is not needed to provide the "much" in our Blessed Isles -  good income, good wine, good food, good company, good health: the good life. (Yes, yes, I know some people are struggling ... but we do have a low unemployment rate, the vast proportion of people are housed satisfactorily, few if any people are actually starving to death.)

Andrei, in some comments responding, helpfully reminded me and us - in my words - of sticking to our liturgical, ritual, traditional knitting.

That raises for me this question about getting cut through for the gospel - sort of a "pre question."

What is the (Anglican) church to which we long to see new converts join us in membership of Christ's body?

There are various versions of being Anglican churches in these islands! Some even work :)

When we seek conversion through proclaiming the gospel we are not simply engaged in saving souls from hell. We seek people to be transformed from reckless sinners rebelling against God into participatory members of the body of Christ. Various modes of expression of that body exist and when it comes to evangelism there seems to be temptation to adjust the mode to enhance evangelism.

Being Anglican as a church is sufficiently flexible to adjust our mode. We can, for instance, lessen emphasis on the ministry of the Sacrament in order to stronger emphasis the ministry of the Word or vice versa. When we lessen emphasis on the Sacrament we can look more like a Baptist church than a Pentecostal one, or vice versa. When we place more emphasis on the Sacrament we can look like a Roman Catholic church or like Taize. (And all these modes have been proven, in certain times and places to "work.")

Also, some ministry units are able to sustain a varied programme of services: standard p. 404 eucharist, informal family service, youth flavoured evening service, Messy Church. In such a case there is something of the best of all Anglican liturgical worlds!

In my experience, for a number of Anglican ministry units, there is a question about what kind of church new converts would be joining.

For instance, musically, would the convert be joining a church which feels like it is 1977 or 2017?

Liturgically speaking, would the convert be joining a church which feels like it loves the liturgy it uses and understands how liturgy works to glorify God and to edify the congregation? Or, joining a church which keeps implying some things are only done "because we are Anglican"?

There are other questions ...!

For clarity: I am not arguing here that if we get Sundays right we will draw new people off the streets into our midst. That may or may not happen. I am raising the question what kind of church new people would come into if we invited them to participate as we encourage their new faith in Christ.


Andrei said...

I think you are trying to preach the Gospel in the same way Apple markets its latest cell phone - it will never work

The heart of Christian worship in the Christian community is the Eucharist and it is for all! From the youngest baby to the most elderly of the Parish

And I literally had a conversation with a woman I know last week, a woman in her sixties, in which she told me she hadn't attended to Church the previous Sunday because it was "messy church"

You say in your post how materially well off we are in 21st Century New Zealand and never a truer word was spoken but we are culturally and spiritually impoverished

It shows in the number of prescriptions for anti depressants that a filled, it shows in the cultural wasteland of our TV shows

A lead item on TV One News last week was about social anxiety among young people - the poster child for this "problem" was a very attractive young woman from an obviously prosperous background - how empty and vapid is that?

Anglicism could be and should be the English expression of Christianity, it could and should be working towards reunification with the other expressions of the Faith, Greek, Latin, Slavic, Armenian and Coptic

Things like "messy church" have their place as the church tries to reestablish itself at the heart of the community (where it belongs) but not at the expense of it catholicity (in the sense of being for all)

The Church can afford to be counter cultural and actually needs to be in an age where the leading citizens of this land ignore it and hold it in contempt

In every life, no matter how prosperous materially, some rain must fall and in those times the Church must be there to fill the void - and if in times of turmoil someone turns to the Church only to find " messy church" or a loud rock band (usually playing very badly) then what spiritual succor will be provided? Where will inner peace be found?

The heart of any church are those who live Godly lives and turn up week after week to worship Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ - these are the people who hold the Church together and have since the beginning.

The Anglican Church has 2000 years tradition with nearly 500 years of its own heritage to call upon - new things can come, new hymns and styles of singing perhaps but most of the new stuff will not stand the test of time - this is Sturgeons law.

But the heart of Christian life and worship has always been the Liturgy, the Eucharist, the Mass whatever you might like to call it and you mess with that at your peril

Anonymous said...

Peter, is it possible that you are asking, not about *conversion*, but about some less all-or-nothing experience of church-joining that we might better call *choice*? Converts willingly undergo personality change to unite with Christ; choosers decide that joining this church or that one is consistent with who they already think they are. I have no wish to disparage faith as of a mustard seed, but social historian Rodney Stark has convinced some of us that the difference matters.

(1) Converts to new life worlds and choosers of appealing experiences want very different things. The former want a church that supports their psychologically demanding turn from worldliness to Christ, while the latter want a church that is itself worldly enough to enable them to feel lazily at home in it. Ceteris paribus, holy discomfort energises the former and dismays the latter. Pity the poor pastor-- I have seen several in American Orthodoxy-- whose diocese or parish comprises both fiery new converts eager to keep the Lenten fast with monastic rigour and Westernising ethnics who had really hoped that the practise would die out soon.

(2) Counterintuitive as it may be, the sum of all conversion-led growth fairly quickly overtakes the sum of all growth from winning people over segment by segment. Where each convert attracts a few converts who each attract a few more, the pace of growth necessarily has an exponential curve. In contrast, winning market segments over to church participation-- first the gourmets, then the cyclists, then the Marxists, then the coders, then the second-violins, etc-- has a merely arithmetic increase no matter how large the segments are. If you want growth, you want conversion.

(3) If you want a broadly based practise of faith, you again want converts who will throw themselves into making it work throughout their lives. (In the long run, religious pluralism may well entail that, after a phase of vigourous experimentation, the organised forms of the world's several traditions will have to focus on what they have been doing well, and let the rest go. Today, would you choose the prayer habits of Christians or of Muslims? The psychological insight of Buddhist meditation teachers or of Christian clergy? The family life of Christians or of Hindus? The study habits of Jews or of Christians?) While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with making some concession to the aspirations of eg bungee-jumpers there is doubt that constituencies of class, ethnicity, taste, etc share a deep enough connection to the saga of the incarnate, crucified and risen God to carry the whole faith forward. Any church with robust practises of prayer, counsel, family life, and study a century hence will have been energised by converts.

One of the hardest things for any institution to do is to recognise that its recent success may be endangering its future in a different sort of time.


Father Ron Smith said...

I'm with Andrei, in hs insistence that the Sacramental life is at the heart of the tradtional Christian faith and praxis. Jesus encouraged the Initiation rite of Baptism into the Triune God. He also laid the foundation of our ongoing spiritual nurture and growth in the sacred elements of the divine life in the Eucharist. Without these basic ingredients - no matter how good the preaching or exegesis of Bible passages - there is no Body of Christ into which new Christians can be inducted.

The Divne Wortd becamer flesh in the Founder of the Church, and its members need to become familiar with, and united to, its Founder by the Sacraments He initiated.

Jean said...

Casting my mind back a few years, what had the most influence as I was in the place of 'returning to church' -
A) Someone talking to me after the service
B) Being invited - in my case it was to Alpha, later it was to join a cell-group
I think the above two could appear in the reverse order.

What kept me going to that church:
A) Building relationships within the church
B) My own faith growing and as a result my relationship with God deepening, through Alpha initially, also cell groups and mature Christians who encouraged me (ie; opportunities to grow spiritually).
C) As the was such a diverse demonational background flexibility around the details (e.g. Grape Juice or Wine? Old songs or new? - answer both), and the main focus on spiritual growth, hearing the word, and sharing the word.

Anonymous said...

"For clarity: I am not arguing here that if we get Sundays right we will draw new people off the streets into our midst. That may or may not happen. I am raising the question what kind of church new people would come into if we invited them to participate as we encourage their new faith in Christ."

Good. That is convert-led growth, and it can happen.

Andrei, Father Ron, and Jean all present different facets of worship in a healthy local koinonia. A theology of participation and incorporation best holds these together.

But there I get stuck.

DBH's new NT illustrates the reason why: we have acted as though the worship service alone is the local koinonia into which we are incorporated, yet not only do the scriptures resist that rather constantinian reduction, but new and young Christians today seem eager to do something else that plays out their faith as action. Have you heard the Amy Grant song?--

I have decided
I'm gonna live like a believer
Turn my back on the Deceiver
I'm gonna live what I believe

It is as though (a) people believe, (b) the Holy Spirit descends, (c) in Him they intuit that the apostles had it right and there is more to this than being a docile peasant in church, and (d) we say or imply, "Oh no, the Holy Spirit is a millennium and a half out of date, being a brick in the church-wall really is the whole idea now, although we also accept donations and have very spirited arguments online about other people's sex lives..."

I do not say that a strict community of goods is necessary, but there is something wrong with a vision of the Body as confined to a special building, a Real Absence from the households of Christians. Put another way, there is something suspiciously un-Judaic about a chosen people who share almost nothing apart from the eucharist but vibrations in the air or lit pixels on a screen. And over the past several decades-- from the Catholic Worker communities to today's New Monasticism-- the energy poured into households with both worship in the house and some missional work done by the residents has been very fruitful.

TEC has encouraged every diocese to initiate some such outreach, and put seed money into several new houses across the country. Everybody agrees that this experiment has been A Great Success but nobody is clear about how that sort of thing should be continued or scaled up. The model of the parish where Very Private People come together for a brief period of time for the most minimal agape that can be imagined is still taken as the normative form of Christian community, even as it is fading away.


Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Postscript-- This is indeed about Peter's fascinating OP, but not all will see that before the end.

TEC has long been an exemplar in another salient way: it has a serious vocations crisis. That is-- read carefully-- far more Episcopalians want to be ordained than there is any remote prospect of placing in the too few parishes that are shrinking and trimming staff anyway. In the early '80s, a report conjectured that, if all suitable candidates were ordained, then right about now TEC would be about half clergy and half laymen. So the response was to channel all that energy into TEC's missions work, yes? No, it was to find ways to not ordain so many clergy.

Some will be understandably startled at the often cruel disappointment of so much idealism. But I am startled by a paradigm so liturgical that there is no logical place for a more motivated Christian to go but the sacristy. I am not sure that even Father Ron loves liturgy as much as I do, but (as he would agree) that really is not all there is to being in Christ.

The theology that most Anglicans actually use comes in two main brands-- one minimises sacraments and liturgy-- too much I think-- but does have at least a narrow sense of what a lay life should be apart from that; the other maximises liturgy so much that a lay life in the world scarcely makes any sense, and it often seems to fill its gap with social and civic causes. As I have often said, this unscriptural and untraditional polarity is a disease, and neither pole is a healthy model of Anglican, or for that matter Christian, identity. Rather they are decadence, the continuation of something that was last healthy and plausible a very long time ago.

So creative and testable answers to Peter's original question will show us things about the job of being a new Christian that both poles have missed, and will pull the together the insights that they do have from across the divide. For examples--

Anonymous said...


Neither pole informs the work that Christians put decades of their lives into doing. Plainly that matters to new Christians since this is often the thing that has been controlling her/his life up to the point of an allegiance to Jesus Christ. Communities for new Christians will have a sound theology of work and vocation in Christ, and will offer help in discernment along the way.

Both poles say some of the right things about works of mercy. Parishes of both kinds occasionally do them. But they are peripheral to the core self-understanding at each pole. That contrasts poorly with the emphasis on New Creation and God's love for all that attracts many new souls to Christ today. Communities for new Christians will be much more intentionally missional and diaconal.


Liturgy need not be imprisoned in church-buildings. Ancient Christians communicated during the week with bread taken home from the Lord's Day eucharist. Byzantines held prayer-services in the street where a public tragedy called for it. Orthodox clergy today bless homes; the homes often have altars; the altars have incense, candles, icons, a prayerbook, a bible, etc. Of course, Evangelicals have lots of experience with the structure of private and family time for prayer and worship, which may be why those here who have sailed to Byzantium have been so insistent on setting all of this up. Getting liturgy into the homes of new Christians matters because starting structured prayer is something that they can do, and something concrete that their local koinonia can occasionally celebrate with them.

One pole loves scriptural rules and the other is groping toward a certain personalism, but neither has given an ethic of virtue its scriptural place. Of course that matters to a new Christian, because this neglect makes it harder to see how the Holy Spirit is related to daily life and how the soul is fed by the Word when it is talking very concretely about inner transformation in Christ. Communities for new Christians should offer excellent guidance and support for the scriptural and traditional discipline that springs organically from that transformation-- fasting.

These are several of the many experiments that Anglicans serious about evangelism ought to be conducting. What is important about them is not the form that they take, but that they have a clear view of who new Christians are, make testable claims about what they need, and then draw on the whole tradition-- not just a pole of it-- to fashion help for those needs that can be given, evaluated, and improved.

Bowman Walton

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bowman
My posts are going to be focused on the urgent situation which presents to many Anglicans: paucity, scarcity ... of people, of people in certain age groupings ... on a Sunday morning/evening but I entirely agree Christianity and Anglicanism as a form of that is much, much more than (a) Sundays (b) liturgy (c) buildings in which liturgy typically takes place!