I haven’t blogged in a while and it’s getting high time I did. Your humble correspondent must admit that he has been a bum and an insufferable jackass for a good little bit now, and explaining my recent experience and unloading some of the insights gained from said experience is a good preparatory exercise for leaving that state and returning to productivity.
I am entering a new phase of life that scares me. Seminary education via correspondence was proceeding at a snail’s pace, and I found that undertaking the enterprise of theological education with only myself as a conversation partner was becoming an exercise in spiritual pride and constipation. I have also come to the realization that continuing with more school right now is simply a stall tactic to avoid the inevitable. Don’t get me wrong, I treasure the deeper knowledge and experience of Christ our Savior and training in his service I have gained in my time at seminary and this course of action has been faithful to God’s calling on my life, but I realize that if I don’t get on the horse now and quit waiting around for my future, someday will become never. In light of these realities, I’m reluctantly hauling my happy self off to look for a job. The hitch is that I’m a bit lazy and unmotivated and that working with a disability is fraught with challenges but mostly I’m afraid of the unknown and of the answer to the question of whether or not I can hack it. Currently I’m steering toward work in education, social services, or counseling. It would be ideal if I could find this kind of job in a church or ministry context where I could also use my training and passion for theology and worship.
Another course of events that has gone down recently is a source of much sorrow and a cause for repentance at my own stubbornness and naiveté and the effects it has had on family members who had to suffer through a community that apparently did not want them. In spite of my many and controversial ruminations in recent years about the importance of the worship, teaching, and community of the church and the need to return to a churchly and sacramental Christianity as the path to reform, I find myself at the current time without a church. A piece of advice for those who would follow the path I have attempted to trod from broad evangelicalism to high Protestantism: prepare for a rude awakening if you think because of its traditionally high ecclesiology this segment of the American church has been resistant to the compromise with unhealthy individualism that has plagued mainstream evangelicalism. In spite of my profound Presbyterian convictions I am in all likelihood returning to the Baptist tradition. Let me note that the abuse of the doctrine of covenant succession coupled with the abandonment of the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions and catechisms has coalesced in many historically Reformed churches and denominations in a closed-off, self-conscious elitism that will soon strangle those communities caught in its grasp. The children of mainline Presbyterians have stopped going to church and so the Presbyterian Church USA is experiencing an inevitable numerical hemorrhage. With all of its talk about inclusiveness and diversity, the increasingly liberal Presbyterian Church USA is faithful to the culturally “respectable” progressive ideals of pluralist theology, sexual confusion, and uncritically leftist social and political action but far too often fails to live up to the more countercultural and scandalous progressive ideals of the biblical witness, i.e., preaching the gospel and fostering cohesive and nurturing communities where people from diverse social, cultural, racial, and economic backgrounds are warmly welcomed and accepted into the full worshiping, witnessing, serving, and fellowshipping life of the church.
Lest this turn into a rant against liberal Protestantism based on my limited experience of that segment of American Christianity, I want to emphasize a couple of things. 1) The community in which I gained the unhappy surprise of humbling disappointment has its good points and fair share of earnest, welcoming, and wonderful Christians, as I’m pretty convinced almost all churches do. Elvis has not left the building but his representatives are swimming upstream against the inertia of generations of taken-for-granted grace and the stubborn insistence on, “Well, this is just how we Presbyterians are!” 2) This is not just a problem in liberal and socioeconomically ascendant churches. The keynote of churches in America, conservative and liberal, Protestant and Catholic, is voluntarism. The church is an optional society that we get to make in our own image. An elder in the church I have left essentially told me as much. He was of the opinion that the Scriptures do not teach that individual Christians are obligated to be committed to a particular group of believers. The church exists for no other purpose than to feed individual Christians for their personal ministries in the world. This is sad. The church exists to feed and please me; I do not need to love and serve Christians who do not look, think, or act just like me. Pray tell, if we feel this way about other believers, what does it say about how we will treat nonbelievers who do not look, think, or act just like me?
Pardon me if I suggest that it is precisely this kind of thinking and behavior that causes people on the margins to give up on the church altogether. If outcast church members are not part of the in-group and the members of the in-group feel no sense of Christian love to include and welcome “the least of these” among their brothers and sisters, how can the church possibly realize its mission of being the suffering and world-healing Body of Christ and mother of all the faithful that Jesus has purchased her to be?
Pay close attention, when I say shocking and controversial things like the church is “the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation,” as Presbyterianism’s Westminster Confession of Faith does (25.2), I am not positing a works righteousness whereby all Christian people are forced to conform to the misleading, superficial, cookie-cutter image of the hyper-caffeinated, elite super Christian in order to be saved. The church is not a voluntary society for heroic Christians who have everything together and are of old family, of respectable reputation, of upper-middle class means, or of vast influence in the community. No, the church is the Body of the Lord that has big and loving arms in which to embrace nobodys, losers, outcasts, ordinary people, and those unfortunate fools who think they do not belong to these kinds of categories. Jesus does not embrace people in his body for their social connections or money; he embraces us in his flesh purely because we are sinful and weak and small and empty. He is interested not in what we can bring of ourselves that the world so clamors after and esteems but in the wonders he can work in the world through a patchwork quilt of broken vessels like us—broken vessels that he takes such pleasure in putting back together, making holy, and using to advance His Kingdom. What I hear when I hear that the church is voluntary is really that certain people for whom Christ died are not wanted or that other believers have shown that person that he or she was not wanted or needed after all. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. We need the church and the church needs us because Jesus Christ is there. It is the place through which healing flows to the nations. I think we have to get rid of this notion that the church is supplemental or not necessary to Christian life in order to see this more clearly. Maybe if we came to see it as a tragedy that people are rejected by the church and leave it, then maybe we will realize the gravity of Jesus’ command that we love one another and start doing it on an individual and communal level.