Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On what the church is, part 2

In part 1 of this thrilling series, I talked about how the church lives out its call as the body of Christ. In this post, I want to talk about what the church needs to do in order to change--and how it must evaluate whether change is worth it. In my next (and I suspect final) post on this issue, I'll talk about the fundamental issue of what the body of Christ is in the first place, and how our human structures and bureaucracies can bear witness to this scriptural understanding of the church.

I should introduce this notion two ways. First, the reason I am thinking about this particular issue is that I recently read Adam Hamilton's Leading Beyond the Walls. I will say that this kind of "Look what I did" book usually does not appeal to me, but I just really enjoyed this book, and reading Hamilton's discussions of why he does what he does was really eye-opening to me as I think about what the church is and could be, even if I did not always agree with his rationale and actions.

Second, I must admit my general unease at the talk about fundamentally changing what the church does and how it operates. I am one who immediately turns off when someone talks about having a "relevant" church with a "relevant" pastor and "relevant" ministries. We have spent so much time bending church structures and functions in the name of relevancy that the minute the church launches these ministries, they are no longer relevant. In the name of reaching out to people outside of church culture, we have created a whole new church culture. If you have seen churches in which Hawaiian shirts are common, or with rock concert-like lighting, or with holographic presentations of the preacher, or with awesome video, etc.--then you know what I am talking about.

I also serve a very traditional church, and I'm happy for that. If I were creating the perfect church for me (congregation of one), we'd have high liturgy, traditional hymnody, exquisite vestments, smells and bells, the whole nine yards. I am at a church that values traditional, high-church liturgy, and I find myself more uplifted by worship--even while leading it--than I expected, or than some pastors I know. Johns Creek UMC does worship awfully well. I am a traditionalist at heart.

And yet I find myself wrestling with tradition as I come to terms with what it means for the church to be the body of Christ, because while I am a traditionalist, I fully recognize that some of the church's traditions have less to do with being the body of Christ than they do with preserving whatever it is the church has become.

This is not to say we should get rid of tradition. I value tradition as part of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and I believe it has much to teach us about who God is and how God works. I likewise believe that church tradition need not always have Biblical foundation for it to be a valuable, viable, faithful witness to Christ. We discount two thousand years of Christian tradition at our own peril. Those pastors who want to start entirely fresh, who want to forget who has gone before, are the picture of hubris, believing that their vision for the church is greater than all others.

I do not believe we should get rid of tradition. But, as Phyllis Tickle has said, about every five hundred years or so, we go through another period of enlightenment when we look at who we are and reevaluate how the church functions as the body of Christ, because it is very well likely the case that we have some fine tuning to do.

So we have some sorting to do. Tickle calls it a "rummage sale," which is cute, I suppose, but does not do justice to just how difficult it is to figure out what to hold onto and what to toss. Thankfully, this responsibility does not fall on one individual, church, or denomination; the process of reinvention takes place over many years. But we as church leaders of all stripes must wrestle with this issue, of what to keep and what to get rid of.

In some ways, we've already begun. Many churches, for instance, have tossed that traditional hymnody in favor of "contemporary" music. There is much to celebrate in this shift towards finding a way to meet people where they are, and I have no beef with electric guitars in worship. But the theology! The theology in much of what I have heard described as contemporary music is just awful, just terrible, totally devoid of any thoughtful, reasoned reflection on how Christ works in the world, or how we are to respond to Christ's love. It is all about me: me, me, me.

I don't mean to harp on contemporary music. Much of it is good, and there is some good theology within it (and some good music!). I use contemporary music as an example of the implications of tossing out a vital part of the church's witness, without much thought about the implications. Throw out traditional hymnody, even with good intentions, and a great theological witness is lost.

Is it worth losing that witness? I'd say no; obviously, many folks would disagree with me. But we can't pretend that nothing is lost. As we strive to figure out how to faithfully be the body of Christ, we have to be careful. We are, if you will excuse the pneumatological pun, playing with fire, after all. There are consequences to our changes.

But as long as we pay attention to the consequences, and recognize they are there, change is important, as we do what we can to be the most faithful body of Christ we can be. As we--the church--have learned more about how God works in the world, and especially of how Christ fits into our lives, we have two thousand years worth of witnesses to whom we can listen. As we have listen, and as we pick up insights, we also pick up some baggage: the gum on the bottom of the shoe. The problem is not that the gum is on the shoe; the problem is that we think the gum is part of the shoe, and so we hang onto it.

There is baggage we can leave behind, certainly, and there are changes that need to be made. The question I am wrestling with today is this: how can the church wrestle with its fundamental mission of being the body of Christ, reinventing itself without losing much of what gives it its power? How can we be disciples who are faithful to God's continuing call without tossing out the baby with the bathwater?

Let me close with a final example that I think illustrates my inner conflict.

I have always felt that preaching was a central part of my calling as a pastor. I love to preach, have a gift for it, am energized by the whole sermon process. I enjoy reading about preaching, thinking about how stories impact our identity as humans and Christians, and wrestling with the Biblical text in a way that leads to faithful exegesis. I love to preach, and I am a good preacher.

But something Adam Hamilton talks about in his book has me rethinking the whole preaching act--maybe not in my current context, but in the context of my entire ministry. Adam Hamilton talks about his process of selecting sermon materials, and about his delivery style, and he argues that the state of Biblical and theological illiteracy being what it is, any pastor worth her salt should preach thematically and in a teaching style. Most folks don't know the language of the Bible, or the themes, and so rather than telling stories that either bring about an experience of Christ in the sermon, or which point to some moral truth, Adam Hamilton talks about teaching during his sermons in a way that helps people learn.

My struggle is this: my style works for me. It is natural, I have good response to it, and it fits the model, I think, of mainline preaching. I work hard at crafting sermons, and because this is a gift for me, I usually feel good about what I craft. Part of the reason I use a storytelling style is that these are the kinds of sermons that most appeal to me as a listener. I could listen to Fred Craddock preach all day, and feel the whole time that part of what he has done with his stories is call upon Christ to be present in the room with us. I love this kind of preaching.

But what if another style is more effective? What if a teaching style--which I do not find as natural--is what people need? What if teaching sermons lead to more change within people, more making disciples and more transforming the world? Then wouldn't I be crazy to continue preaching the way that I currently preach?

And yet, if I change the way I preach, something will be lost. Is it worth it?

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