by Sam Laurent
Having read the latest dispatch from TREC, and several reactions to it, I am first reminded that, after the talk about the mission of the church and the call to “reimagine” how we function in the 21st century, the General Convention resolution that gave us TREC is primarily concerned with the governance structures of the church. So it is appropriate and reasonable that their letter focused on that area, with hints that the larger work will entail seriously examining the things we say about God and the way we say them. TREC is not meant to focus on our God-talk.
And yet, so much of the rhetoric around this reimagining has to do with getting “outside church walls,” pushing beyond the habitual confines of our church life and offering people a new paradigm of Christianity. We want to break free from the “chosen frozen” moniker and make it known that we are a passionate, thoughtful, committed people who take the task of following Jesus seriously. So we should get outside our increasingly empty pews and go talk with people.
But what shall we say to them?
Our heritage is that of an established church that became the church of the establishment in this country. We may feel squeamish about it, but secular positioning and a sense of social obligation have done a lot of our evangelizing for us, at least where church attendance is concerned. People came to us, perhaps yearning not for Jesus but for social standing, but still, they came.
As a cradle Episcopalian, active in the church all my life, I grew up in warm communities that nurtured me and mentored me and developed my leadership skills and self-confidence. Immeasurable gifts, for sure. And yet I couldn’t have told a newcomer—much less someone who had not already bothered to come to my church—about who we are and how patterning our lives after Christ is at the center of our communal life. In fact, I was steeped in an ethos of being a bit sheepish about mentioning Jesus, lest I sound like a televangelist. There, I suspect, is the rub.
Consider a simple bit of logic: many of the people with whom I attended youth events (I am in my 30s, so I speak of the 1990s here) no longer attend church. That means their kids are not being raised in church. THAT means that if those kids, upon reaching adulthood, visit a church, we will not be able to rely on the heretofore reasonable assumption of a certain baseline familiarity with Christianity and its practices. Put simply, the newcomer of the future will be “newer” than the newcomer of the past, and less socially conditioned to go to church. That is, they will need more convincing of the value of our practices, and will be less familiar with what we might call the “fundamentals” of Episcopal faith. Our God-talk matters more with each passing year.
Another simple point: make a reference to “815” online and see how many people think it’s an area code or a band or a typo. The decline in the number of communicants in Episcopal churches is, I must assume, not tightly linked to our national governance. Rather—and this is something I do not hear being said within the church—I think it is happening because the social expectation of church attendance has relaxed and people can now freely admit that they do not (and perhaps never did) believe all of the things that our churches proclaim. They did not feel what we had told them they’d feel, and they don’t believe what we ask them to say they believe. They are not going to other churches. They are leaving religion.
One more obvious but necessary observation. These people I grew up with, the friends I’ve made more recently, these folks who were raised in churches and stopped going? They are exceedingly smart, thoughtful people. They are not superficial, they are not lazy, and their lives do not lack rigor. They are deeply committed to justice, to an ethos of love, and to helping their neighbor. But many of them were hurt by churches, and many others just found that the spiritual good of church attendance no longer outweighed the preponderance of dogma they couldn’t accept. They find the spiritual good in other places. The people who are leaving the church are not faithless or shallow. I think we have spent far too little time sitting with the reality that our God-talk has chased people away.
It need not be so. While I do not advocate a cynical capitalist strategy of saying whatever it is that people want to hear, it seems altogether reasonable to think that we might find ways of proclaiming the Gospel that are both faithful to our spiritual inheritance and resonant in the world around us.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a theologian by training. Having grown up in the church, I learned to talk about Jesus in graduate school. I don’t believe theology will magically solve the church’s problems, but I also don’t believe that they can be solved without theology. In the whirlwind of our times, God calls us to proclaim God’s love in ways that require new words, new ideas, and a listening spirit. We need not—indeed, ought not–discard our tradition or the wisdom of Christians past, but we must ever strive to interpret God’s revelation such that it speaks to our context. The truth of it is that we have room for improvement on this count.
Take atonement as an example. A doctrine that remains largely the domain of mystery, it fairly leaps at the newcomer, as they are told that Christ’s blood was shed for them, that Jesus offered “a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” With some exegesis, some discussion of Anselm and of Girard, for starters, atonement becomes a vital point of grace and wonder right at the center of the Christian narrative and life. But at first encounter those words above, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, may not mean what we think they mean. Presented as though self-evident, our words get away from us. And so my discussions with catechumens spend a lot of time on the matter of atonement, and relatedly talking about theodicy. Right there, at the center of our worship, are phrases and images that need unpacking. Welcoming people into the Body of Christ (there’s another less-than-obvious term) is as much a matter of teaching as of inviting.
But catechesis has, to be frank, not been a focus for quite some time. With social position in our favor and lex orandi, lex credendi on the tips of our tongues, we assumed that our liturgy was plenty formational, with some cursory inquirer’s classes and six weeks or so of confirmation training filling out the syllabus. Book groups and Bible studies have long been elective courses.
Digging into the theology, the history, the biblical hermeneutics behind our language can open up once-imposing language so the wisdom of the centuries can be heard anew. I know that contemporary thinkers are engaging new philosophies, the sciences, and the changing flows of information to offer up fresh visions of divine activity and calling, and that these ideas matter. Our challenge is welcoming people into conversations, hearing their concerns, their doubts, their desires and their discomforts, and helping them experience the vast and expanding wealth of Christian theology as a guide for their own journey. Theology is not meted out to people, but is done alongside them, as prayer.
So the mission field of the 21st century as I see it is populated by informed, intelligent people without a church upbringing, with justifiable skepticism about organized religion. Most of them will not come to church. But the church that can speak to their intelligence, can honor their discomfort with some of the dogmatic formulations we merely roll our eyes at, and that resists the urge to assume that doubt resolves to faith is the church I want to be a part of. We are called to talk about God with them. This is core to the mission of the church, to the baptizing of people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I do not believe that TREC is re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but I don’t think their ultimate recommendations will address the crux of the church’s decline. If we strive to be a church where each person can articulate their Christian vocation, we will be on to something. That will require a renewed commitment to adventurous theological education in our communities, and an admission that our catechesis has been lacking. The years to come will ask us to be bold, articulate, and compassionate proclaimers of the Gospel. I pray that the church governance, whatever shape it takes, challenges us to make sure our God-talk is up to the task.
Sam Laurent, Ph.D. is a layperson, theologian, and stay-at-home father in Durham, NC. He serves as Theologian In Residence at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC, where he preaches monthly. Most recently, Sam published an essay on John Coltrane and divine creativity in The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music: Songs of Fear and Trembling, available from Palgrave Macmillan.