There is a no more dependable perennial than the annual blossoming of angst over the decline and imminent death of the church. Every denomination grows its own variety, mine is from the Episcopal Church. Yes, church attendance has been in decline for decades, and it saddens me as much as it does anyone. The perennial question is always, what should we do about it? My answer is always the same, proclaim the gospel and get on with life.
It’s never a satisfying answer. Critics say I’m ducking the question, offering nothing but a facile platitude, and ignoring the serious institutional issues that must be addressed. I don’t know, maybe they’re right. To be honest, even after several terms as a deputy to the national convention, I’m not very interested in denominational politics or the various institutional schemes for updating, streamlining and marketing. But, they say, look at the data. I’m a data kind of guy, so parsing church statistics can be an enjoyable pastime that offers the occasional AHA! moment of insight into what’s going on. It’s akin to solving the trick clue in the NYT Thursday crossword.
Jesus sent twelve untried disciples into nearby villages to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom was at hand, call people into a more intimate relationship with God, and offer the gift of God’s healing presence. Later, he sent seventy equally untried followers out to do the same. He instructed Peter to “feed my sheep.” Scripture reports that he commanded all his followers to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey every thing that I have commanded you.” What did he command? One way or the other it added up to, “Love one another as I have loved you.” No matter what else scripture says, it has to be weighed against the commandments to love God, neighbor and self. What Jesus said and did is the pattern for following in the way of love.
That’s it. Our work is to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus to whomever will listen, and teach them to follow Jesus in the way of love. I don’t think there is anything facile or platitudinous about that. The biggest question for clergy is, how did Jesus love us? It’s not how to save the church. If we are to love one another as he loved us, how did he show us the way? Its corollary is, how are we to teach others the way? He gave us powerful tools to use, the Holy Eucharist foremost among them, followed by his examples of preaching, listening, and healing. The first disciples understood the gravity of having been commissioned personally by the Word of God made flesh. They were careful to pass on the tradition of ordination in which, through laying on of hands, the Holy Spirit authorizes persons to speak and teach in God’s name. That’s it. It’s the work to which ordained persons have been called, the whole work, there isn’t anything else. Well, there is, we all know that, but it doesn’t come from God. Don’t let what doesn’t come from God get ahead of what does come from God.
Does that mean the institutional church is unimportant, that we really don’t need it? Good grief, no. The institutional church is the holy vessel that bears the living God from generation to generation, not unlike the Ark and temple of ancient Israel. The Ark was lost but the word of God survived. The temple was destroyed, but the word of God survived. Is the institutional church greater than the Ark or temple? I don’t want the institutional church to go the way of the Ark or temple, but if it does, God’s purposes will still be accomplished. As for me, I treasure the Episcopal Church and want it to thrive. It is in the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church that I am most richly fed. The liturgy is for me a conduit flowing with God’s abounding and steadfast love. The Episcopal Church will thrive only if it thrives at the local level.
All the important work of the church takes place in congregations at the local level. The church is at its best when every member of the clergy is committed to proclaiming the gospel and teaching parishioners how to live their daily lives as agents of God’s love. It means guiding the fitfully faithful to follow Jesus as compassionate, listening, healing, reconciling bearers of some little part of the kingdom in their daily lives. It means standing for godly justice against the forces of injustice and oppression, no matter the guise in which they present themselves. The primary job of the larger church institution is to serve the needs of local parishes.
Polls and data are not signs of failure. The Episcopal Church fails when local congregations turn complacently inward. It fails when local congregations turn outward in social service without bearing boldly the light of Christ. It fails when being sent out to do the work Jesus has given his followers to do is merely a dismissal from worship. It’s all local.