Now and then I write down interesting phrases picked up in the news or a magazine that, taken entirely out of context, lead me to reflect on them as inspiration for a column. Two came to mind recently. Attributed to the Notre Dame sociology department was the phrase, “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The other was from a book review written byJason MIcheli in the August 29, 2018 issue of The Christian Century: “We are playing chaplain and cheerleader to people whose faith is being formed elsewhere, shaped by another who just might be the enemy.”
What I think they add up to is pandering to those remaining in the pews, hoping they won’t leave. Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. It’s pandering to the people in the pews so as not to upset them lest they reduce their tithes or leave. It produces a kind of ministry ridiculed in the novels of Jane Austen. If it doesn’t abandon the gospel altogether, it results in weak preaching of little consequence. I’m reminded of a popular preacher, now deceased, of whom it was said by his many admirers that he always left them laughing and feeling good about themselves. It was “moralistic therapeutic deism” in the flesh. Momentarily uplifted egos is not what the gospel is about, but that preacher packed the church. In the face of declining church attendance, is that the answer? Is playing chaplain and cheerleader what we need to do to keep those whose faith is being formed at work, over beers, or by media personalities?
Of course not, except that a lot of professional advice comes close to it. The antidote for decline is better marketing, so we’re told by church growth consultants abetted by hand wringing peddlers of anxiety over the dying church. Better marketing is not a bad idea, especially considering how well Christianity has been highjacked by those who’ve crafted a civil religion cloaked in questionable theology and phony patriotism dotted with frequent use of Jesus’ name.
The question is, what are we marketing? Are we missional enough? Are we outward or inward? What’s the best strategy? The early church launched out into a hostile Roman Empire with but one offering, the good news of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Was it was easier for them because everyone already believed in a god of some kind, but not many do these days? I doubt it. Was there any real difference between them and our own pantheon of gods who take the form of sports, reality television, consumerism, wealth, and such? Not much. So what did the evangelists do? They proclaimed the gospel. That’s it. No marketing gurus. No “moralistic therapeutic deism.” No feel good chaplaincy. They just kept telling people about Jesus.
Advice to my colleagues, who seldom ask for it, is don’t worry about whether the church is dying, just preach the gospel, and keep preaching it. You are the one who is supposed to be promiscuously sowing the word, so just keep sowing because the seed will never run out. But what next? A little gardening is always in order, but don’t get consumed by it. Just keep preaching the gospel.
Will it grow the church? You’re not in the church growth business. You’re in the gospel preaching business. Paul’s work in Corinth involved a lot of sewing and weeding with few results, but here we are two thousand years later still learning from what he had to say to those Corinthian miscreants. The seed took root, just not in his time.
We all count heads, but in talking about ordination vows with colleagues from other denominations, none of us could find anything about counting heads. Although the words differed, there was one central theme: we are called to make Christ known, teach, serve and care for all, declare salvation, and share in the holy mysteries as each of our denominations understands them.
I’m not demeaning concern over declines in church attendance. We’ve made mistakes along the way that need to be addressed, not to restore the past, but prepare for the future. First, foremost and always, our job is to proclaim the gospel. Do that, and don’t worry so much about the rest.
Here endeth the rant.