Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Shrinking the Faith to Grow the Church. . .

It is an oft repeated complaint that the Church has abdicated the Gospel in favor of the Western egalitarianism of the present age.  It is also an oft repeated complaint that the Church will die unless she remains relevant and adapts (dare I say adopts) the values and structures of Western egalitarianism.  This conflict becomes pivotal in such things as the ordination of women, the acceptance of gay and lesbian sexuality and marriage, and a few other hot topics.  But it is also a deep divide when it comes to the use of modern sounding music and a worship "style" which abandons all remnants of the Western Mass form in favor of an entertainment style service supposedly less offensive or off putting to modern folks.

In the end it is the classic dilemma of trying to shrink the faith in order to grow the church.  This is the failed strategy not only of the modern age but of any age and time that has sought to smooth the rough edges of Christian faith and teaching to make it easier to hear, easier to heed, and easier to believe.  We are certainly not the first who have attempted to reduce Christianity to a smaller doctrinal bite with the promise of a better and a more appealing taste.  This always leads to a faith emptied of content but left only with behavior as the focus, concern, and direction.  This path leads to an end to calls to repentance, an end to preaching of the forgiveness of sins -- indeed of sin itself, and an end to the cross as the center of the Church's proclamation and life.  A cross-less Christ is certainly less offensive but so much less offensive that it leaves us wondering why bother with the faith at all.

We Lutherans have been victims of those who have tried to shrink the faith and grow the Church -- on both sides.  On one hand we have the emptiness of a Gospel without much historical mooring in which Scripture contains the Word of God but is not that Word and in which myth and legend are intermingled with fact and truth so that the only thing left is symbolism.  The ELCA has perfected this kind of shrinking of the faith until there is no heresy except the rejection of the modern Western egalitarian ideals of speech, behavior, tolerance, and acceptance.  But that communion had bled off members from the get go and its promise of form without substance has left most folks flat.

On the other hand we have the Lutherans who practice a slightly more liturgical evangelicalism with its focus on personal preference, feeling, desire, and the goal of happiness.  This side has stripped the Church of altar, pulpit, and vestments in favor of stage, dramatic lighting, big speakers, and the typical polo/khaki or tee shirt/jeans uniform.  Sans creed, Eucharist, confession and absolution, this is a formless shape which easily adapts and adopts the prevailing trend of music, culture, and message to remain ahead of the curve.  While this has certainly filled the seats, there is no evidence that it has grown the Church.  Indeed, the mournful admissions of the Willow Creek model have shown just the opposite -- people come but they do not follow.

It is certainly politically incorrect to suggest that whether the Church grows or not (at least in our humble estimation and measurement of that growth), shrinking the faith is not an option.  Inevitably those who choose faithfulness to the eternal over slavish indulgence to the moment are deemed the narrow, judgmental, and obsolete folks who choose maintenance over mission.  So be it.  We have been given no charge to redefine the faith to grow the Church nor have we been given any promise of blessing upon our endeavors unless those efforts be guided and shaped by faithfulness.

I believe it was Dean Inge who said that the church who marries the spirit of the age will be a widow in the next generation.  Whoever the source, it is a classic statement of the inherent weakness of shrinking the faith (minimizing what is to be believed, confessed, and taught) in order to grow the Church.  We are not without options in our choices of how to shrink the faith.  From ELCA mainline Protestantism to evangelicalism and its entertainment and self-improvement focus, we are gravely tempted to make it somehow easier to believe and easier to follow Christ.  In the end, we only diminish Christ and His work and make believing and following either irrelevant or unnecessary to the modern world and psyche.

Whether it is about sex or marriage, about the f actuality of the events in Scripture, about the pursuit of desire over faithfulness, we have watched as the relentless march of modernity has influenced the Church's faith and life but for what end?  Are there more believers?  Are the believers more faithful?  Do they walk more obediently to the heavenly vision?  We can be smug because we do the liturgy better even though we believe its words less or we can be smug because we are on the cutting edge of cultural change but the pride of both will certainly be appropriately rewarded on the day of reckoning.  Humble faith trusts the Word of the Lord, meets the Lord where He has promised to be found, and serves the Lord by faithful believing and living the Gospel of the cross and this, Scripture tells us, will receive reward beyond all imagination.