By Derek Olsen
The Episcopal Church is a religious institution. However you feel about that—and feelings about institutional religion are many and various—St. Paul reminds us by way of the Ephesians that, of the many purposes for an institution, there is one fundamental purpose that must never stray from our sight:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, NRSV)
This fundamental purpose is best named as Christian maturity. The body’s ability to present love in thought, word, and deed both inside and outside of itself is directly related to the spiritual health and maturity of each of the members who make up the body. Paul is absolutely clear that the yardstick is Christ and that any knowledge or equipping conducted by and through the church must lead us into our fullest resemblance of Christ.
That’s the big picture. Now—how do we get there? Or, to state it more clearly, what steps do we as members and leaders within congregations take to realize this goal in our midst?
Personally, I think that we have to do it in steps, and that we have to proceed from a number of angles at the same time. I’d like to take up one such angle today, tagging it with the requisite notice learned from so many cereal advertisements: this is a nutritious part of your complete Christian diet; insufficient on its own, but powerful in combination.
As inheritors of the Anglican way, we must begin with the conviction that Christian maturity has a corporate liturgical component. Coming to worship is important. Why? The first and primary reason proceeds directly out of our Baptism. In Baptism we become members of the Body of Christ—and that’s not simply a metaphor, the Church teaches that it’s a mystical reality. The first and primary reason that we gather as a liturgical community is that together we are a literal and mystical expression of the eschatological Body of Christ. It’s the deep truth behind that whole “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there also am I” thing. When we gather together as members of the Body, we form the Body and, through our worship, take on a role within the interior life of the Trinity as the Body of Christ gives praise and glory to God the Father in and through God the Holy Spirit. Naturally, this is most perfectly expressed in the Eucharist where we participate in own Christ’s self-offering.
(Consider that next time you’re tempted to sleep in; do you really want to miss out on participating in the Trinity’s interior dialogue?)
There are other reasons as well, though none can match this first in importance. Christian formation into the language and habits of the Body is a high reason on my list. From this point you know the items on the list as well as I do: drawing strength from fellowship and mutual encouragement, sharing our joys and sorrows and helping bear the burdens of others, organizing to express God’s love in tangible works of mercy, and so on and so forth.
To boil this down to practicalities it seems that a first step of Christian maturity, then, is to set some basic expectations for community life. Stated in its most crass and clear form, we expect butts in pews. Furthermore, we expect those butts to be in pews when the community gathers. Now, many parishes have some sort of notion about this; it’s usually not expressed formally but is part of the lived culture. But we have to make sure what message it is that the lived culture is communicating. At one parish of my acquaintance, a member stated the cultural message to me explicitly: “here we expect that people ought to come to church at least twice a month or so…” I was shocked. I get that not everyone’s a church mouse. I’m a parent of children whose weekends are quickly filling with activities; I know about Sunday morning games and meets and such. But is this the expectation that our communities want to send?
At this point, we’ve got to stop and address the issue which is probably on your mind because I know it’s on mine: Do we have the right to set expectations for other people’s religious observance?
I’ll give you a second to ponder that…
Feel free to scroll back up and take another glance at the quote from Ephesians that kicked this whole thing off…
And after having said that you should know what it is that I’m going to say.
We certainly do have the right to set expectations for other people’s religious behavior because they’re not in it for themselves just like and you and I aren’t in it by ourselves. That’s the problem with that whole Baptism thing; it means that we are tied together, bound together by spiritual ligaments within the Body of Christ. If we are not encouraging those in the Body to rise to the maturity to which we are corporately called, we’re failing ourselves as well as them.
But what about being open and inclusive, you might say. What about being non-judgmental? What about “meeting people where they are”? You’d be quite right. Our mandate gives us the right to set an expectation; it does not give us the right to compel, cajole, or harass. Part of the real tension here is that while the Body must work corporately, the individual members must grow into their own maturity. We must point in the right direction, but there is no known way to force a person into maturity, spiritual or otherwise. Rather, we must set the norm, and then invite individuals to a clearly defined place of greater maturity.
Let me hit this from another angle. As I write, I have in my mind’s eye a guy like myself and like the guys I know at work. He’s an early thirty-something, married, with a kid or two. Maybe he grew up in the church, maybe his wife did, but for whatever reason drifted away. Now they’re at the point where they’ve feel some vague sense of obligation to show up at a church once in a while “for the sake of the kids.” We want to meet this guy where he is. And, in truth, he’s already taken the first step towards greater Christian maturity—that’s the one that got him over the threshold. Meeting him where he is means thanking him for that step and encouraging and engaging him. The next step means presenting a non-coercive vision and expectation of weekly attendance.
I can’t necessarily tell you what that ought to look like; it’ll be different in each community. Ideally, weekly attendance should be its own reward. Reverent worship, engaging faith formation, caring community should all reinforce the expectations. The expectations should be clear, but never pharisaical, never bludgeons nor codes of conduct. Hopefully, after a time this guy should look forward to coming to church every week, and be clear that he’s doing it for his sake, not just for the kids.
Those are the first two steps towards corporate liturgical maturity—getting people in the door in the first place, and then proceeding to weekly attendance. But, all too often, that’s where our expectations end—and that’s a shame. The American protestant experience has a certain amount of sabbatarianism to it. That’s the notion, proceeding from the 4th commandment, that the Sabbath day should be kept holy that in former days were taught in churches and enshrined in civil practice. The old Blue Laws that kept me from buying beer on Sundays in Atlanta were a hold-over from it. The up-side of sabbatarianism is that until this generation, civic and community organizations didn’t schedule things on Sunday mornings. That has, of course, changed. The down-side still lingers with us. The down-side is this notion of separation: if Sunday is holy, it means, by extension, that the other days aren’t, or that the other days don’t have to be. The down-side is an assumption that if one goes to church on Sunday, the week’s religious obligations have been met.
The next step towards Christian maturity is breaking the chains of the sabbatarian fallacy. Don’t get me wrong; we should keep the commandment and keep the Sabbath holy in ways that make sense to you and your community. But the idea that Christian responsibility—and Christian liturgy—are done by Monday morning has got to go. We need another expectation beyond weekly attendance. Luckily, we have it.
The very first sentence of substance in our Book of Common Prayer, after the Ratification, after the Preface, lays out the next ideal: “The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in this Church” (BCP, p. 13). Speaking liturgically, speaking with an eye to Christian formation and Christian maturity, I’m in favoring of dropping the reference to “the Lord’s Day” on the grounds of redundancy. The Eucharist is the principle act of worship on all Feasts; we don’t go to church on Sunday because it’s Sunday, we go because it’s a Feast of the Resurrection that happens to recur on a weekly basis.
This is a subtle shift. Some may say overly subtle, but I don’t think so. For the next step in Christian liturgical maturity is recognizing that there isn’t a separation in our lives between God’s time and our time—it’s all God’s time. We gather as a community to mark the feasts with Eucharists no matter on what day they fall. We mark each morning and evening with prayer, ideally in physical community but more likely and practically in spiritual community. But our communities need to uphold these expectations. Eucharists should be offered on feasts; if Daily Morning and Evening Prayer aren’t offered publicly, congregants should not only be instructed in the use of the Daily Offices but also reminded of their place in our lives. Again—the community has a responsibility to set the expectation.
In Paul’s Ephesians passage, one of the traits of the mature is a fundamental groundedness. Paul expresses this with a negative formulation: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” Being rooted, being connected to firm foundations, this is a trait of maturity from the liturgical perspective as well as the theological. Thus, maturity means that spiritual adventurism has passed, a rootless desire for liturgical novelty has likewise passed.
We are called in Baptism to live into the full stature of Christ. Paul rightly uses the language of maturity; we must “grow up” into Christ. Furthermore, one of the fundamental purposes of Christian communities is to nurture the whole community towards maturity that we may best do what we are—an expression of the eschatological Body of Christ. Our communities are failing in their calling if they are not setting expectations and drawing a clear path towards maturity. How’s your community doing?
Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.