Friday, June 1, 2007

Evangelism and a Failure of Christian Formation

Recently I’ve come across a couple of articles that have caught my attention and started me thinking about the connections between evangelism and Christian formation.

Here’s an excerpt from the first one, in which John B. Chilton analyzes the reasons why the Episcopal Church does a rather dismal job of evangelism and why our numbers continue to decrease:

You might think that a tolerant church with modern attitudes, a willingness to experiment even with its rich tradition in order to be accepting, and an orientation to bringing about the Kingdom would appeal to those who remain unchurched in secular American society. But there’s no sign that we do appeal to the unchurched, at least not in large numbers.

Many are going to call it a cheap out, but my belief is that numbers are not the only measure of success. We are not a mass market church. We are a niche church with a rich liturgical tradition that brings some closer to God’s immanence, transcendence and longing for a relationship with God’s people. But our style doesn’t work for everyone – even if they agree with us on social issues – and that’s okay.

If it is not in numbers, what can be our measure of success? Are we doing a good job of encouraging our members to deepen their relationship with God? Christian formation is an area where I have witnessed growth and improvement in the Episcopal Church in recent decades. We’re pretty good at it (in my experience). But, in my view, we are not sufficiently demanding on this front. Evangelicals are successful in part because they create a tension with secular society. I propose that we could create more healthy tension with secular society by asking our members to grow in formation, perhaps even to adopt a rule of life. There is an aching spiritual void in secular society and adopting these kinds of standards would attract some seekers among the unchurched.

We can debate the author’s defense of our small size on the grounds that we are “a niche church.” That may be true. But it’s probably also the case that too many of the unchurched who might find a home in the Episcopal Church don’t discover us because we don’t do a good job of sharing our faith and who we are as a community.

Is it because we feel embarrassed to talk about Jesus? Are we afraid of letting others know that we take Christian faith seriously? Is it just easier to talk about Millennium Development Goals (which, by the way, are goals which I support)?

I think this problem is directly related to Christian formation.

I disagree with Mr. Chilton insofar as my experience as a priest tells me that we’re also not very good at forming persons as Christians in the Episcopal Church. I think that helps to explain why so many of us – in some cases including elderly cradle Episcopalians as well as graduating seminarians – are unable to articulate the basics of the Church’s faith, including things like sin, salvation, who Jesus is, the significance of the resurrection, etc. And it explains why we are uncomfortable talking about our faith in explicitly Christian terms. (I once asked an aspirant for Holy Orders, “Who is Jesus in your life?”, and I was later told by this person that my question had “violated” her.)

But I quite agree with Chilton that perhaps one way to fill the “aching spiritual void in secular society” would be to return to the rich spiritual and theological resources of our tradition, much of which remain untapped in many of our churches. Beyond what starts on page 355, how many Episcopalians, for example, even know what's in The Book of Common Prayer - that most ubiquitous and yet mostly under-utilized resource for Christian education and formation in the Episcopal Church?

Here’s a quote from that second article I recently read, this time from theologian and philosopher Dallas Willard:

Generally, what I find is that the ordinary people who come to church are basically running their lives on their own, utilizing ‘the arm of the flesh’—their natural abilities—to negotiate their way. They believe there is a God and they need to check in with him. But they don’t have any sense that he is an active agent in their lives. As a result, they don't become disciples of Jesus. They consume his merits and the services of the church. … Discipleship is no essential part of Christianity today.

I think Willard hits the nail on the head here. Many of us don’t have a sense of who God is in our lives or what it might mean to be a disciple of Jesus (as opposed to a churchgoer). It probably doesn’t help that only about 44% of our membership “checks in” with aesthetically beautiful worship on an average Sunday morning, and then they “check out” for the rest of the week.

Besides Holy Scripture, one of the richest resources we have to help people along the journey of knowing God in their lives within the Episcopal Church is our liturgy. But, as I’ve written before, there seems to be an increasing gap between the faith we pray in the liturgy and what we preach, teach, and offer for formation. We pray the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, but then we deny the whole thing as beneath the dignity of educated people by pushing, instead, the deconstructionist (and, in some cases, anti-Christian) agendas of marginal scholars and religious skeptics like Spong, Borg, Crossan, and Pagels.

Little wonder if we have a hard time transforming people into disciples of Jesus.

Or that we fail to feed people with the rich fare of the Anglican tradition in a world so hungry for God that people will gorge on spiritual junk food if it's all they can find.

Or that people with small children in their 20s and 30s move on from us to attend church elsewhere, or they never darken our doors to begin with.

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