Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Saltwater or Sanctification: Inclusion, Relevance, and the Good News

When I was in cause marketing, we used to talk about the difference between emphasizing features and emphasizing benefits in explaining a new program or initiative.  If I applied this analogy to selling a car, saying, “This car has antilock brakes, side-curtain airbags, and the latest collision sensors,” I would be selling features.  Saying “This is the safest car we have for taking your kids to school,” would be selling benefits. 

Too often I think that those of us in the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) try to sell our churches’ carefully thought-out features when people actually want to know about basic benefits.  When someone walks through the door, we say, “The ordination process is open to women and LGBT people; we support the Millennium Development Goals; and we practice open table communion” when it might be more effective to say, “Welcome!  We’re so glad you’re here today.”

This brings me to a second dichotomy: the important difference between necessary and sufficient conditions.  A “necessary” condition is one which is required for something to happen.  Electricity is necessary to light an incandescent bulb.  A “sufficient” condition is one which in and of itself brings a thing about.  For the electricity to light the bulb, one still needs wires, a filament, and other things.  Inclusion to my mind is a necessary condition to be the Body of Christ, but it is not sufficient.  There has to be more.  People are coming looking for something in particular.  Certainly, they want a place where they are welcome, as they do in a restaurant, gym, or school, but, as with those other establishments, the person who comes through the door is looking to have a certain need met, even though they might not be quite certain what it is.

What is this need?  Clearly, I’m skeptical that it is inclusion or political relevance.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to spend most of my working life as a human rights advocate.  I protest and politick at the drop of a hat, but it’s not what I go to church for.  On the contrary, I would say that it is the faith nurtured in the church that strengthens my commitment to peace and justice.  Passionate as I am about my faith, church is not at the top of the list of places I would go to try to accomplish something concrete in the 21st century.

I believe that the terms liberal and conservative will begin to lose some of their importance in the religious landscape as society increasingly divides between those who believe in metaphysical reality and those who do not.  To most of my agnostic friends, much less to gung-ho new atheists, a Southern Baptist, a Wiccan Priestess, and a Roman Catholic monk are all more or less differing shades of the same thing.  Churches, be they ISM or mainstream, will be relevant in the future to the degree they offer people metaphysical value.  Insider language and fine distinctions on matters of polity are increasingly lost on an unchurched world.

This brings me back to inclusion and community.  Ultimately, the community we are selling is the communion of saints.  People are looking for a personal relationship with the Divine.  For me, that’s the person of Jesus Christ.  Others would accent or phrase that differently or say something radically different, but, whatever our particular beliefs, people in the 21st century come to religious bodies for religion. 

At one time Christian churches in this country conferred social respectability, maintained the social service net, and led the fight for human rights.  Today, churches are minor players in these areas and they are going to remain minor players for the foreseeable future, if not permanently.  This is not so much because they have become timid or lost their way, but because religious organizations were enormously successful in spawning a vibrant and innovative non-governmental sector that now accounts for two-thirds of all charitable giving in the U.S.  Some organizations may remain faith-based, but faith groups increasingly find themselves in a crisis of identity.  Many have seen showing their cultural relevance as their hope of regaining public attention and attracting new members, but the results of these efforts seem to show again and again that most people go to church to address their spiritual aspirations.  Other organizations serve people’s passion for justice more directly and better.  Many people like Walmart because they can swing by the bank, auto center, and optometrist while they’re there, but they go in the first place for the prices and selection.  In short, engagement with the larger society is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the success of a faith community.

This does not seem to be a problem only for mainline Protestants, though we’ve had a generation of heated rhetoric between progressives and conservatives in those churches.  Now the trends show us that conservative evangelicals are feeling the same pinch as the infrastructure of the political and charitable organizations they have created are rapidly outstripping the power of their parent bodies.  Today the face of Evangelical America is Joel Osteen, not Jerry Falwell, and survey after survey shows that a growing number of young evangelicals are weary of the culture wars.  Plunging Mass attendance figures among Roman Catholics seem to tell much the same story.  “Spirit of the Council” justice rhetoric and the neo-conservative siege mentality each find their partisans, but the overall figures say that something is missing.

Millions more dollars will no doubt be spent by progressive churches trying to be relevant in the public square and even larger sums will be spent trying to barricade it by conservative churches, where the trend started later.  Sadly, we seem to have more than enough data in hand to know that you can make the world’s most comprehensive statement of inclusion and put it in an institution with every conceivable program and service, but if people don’t feel that their core desire is being realized, they won’t stick around.  The same goes for groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, which have seen membership stall as nondenominational and Pentecostal churches gain momentum on formulae rooted in spiritual and personal growth, even if many of us would question the assumptions in those models.

Rather than focusing our external rhetoric so intently on why we’re relevant and who we welcome—and more and more places offer ever more inclusive welcomes—I believe we have to give more thought to what we offer once someone comes in the doors.  Nine out of ten people will have looked at the website before they come or will call to establish that we won’t turn them away, so what do we give them once they’re here? 

Storefront churches open every day and grow.  While most ISM communities may not offer such a hot gospel as many of them preach, we may have been too quick to dismiss the transformation they offer as an endorphin-driven gimmick.  These other independent communities, at least the successful ones, are not focused on the exclusionary practices and imperfections of the bodies they left.  They are new creations promising those who come through their doors that they can be new creatures.  Whatever their faults, they understand that new wine cannot be made in old skins, in refighting old quarrels, and in nursing old, if very real, wounds.

I would suggest that we’re here to give people sanctification.  Acceptance is good and welcome is better, but people come back week after week to grow in grace and holiness, to make progress in their journey to put on the mind of Christ, to encounter the Risen Lord in the Sacraments, and to offer their worship.  (Fill in the appropriate language, whatever your tradition.) Here, I stand firmly with Flannery O’Connor, who said, “If it’s all just a metaphor, then to hell with it.”  If it’s all no more than ethics and bringing in the kingdom, understood as a just society, to hell with it.  We are here to build up something that the gates of hell, be they a metaphysical reality or the injustice brought about as a result of human sin, cannot conquer.  Anything less will prove as fleeting as our own lives and other institutions are meeting those needs in exciting and innovative ways.  (Again, adjust the language dial to your theology.)

Too often, we may be offering saltwater instead sanctification and it may well be why so many people wander off after a short period.  I say “saltwater” because of something I heard years ago at a vigil before an execution.  Sr. Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame spoke then of how prosecutors used the families of murder victims, telling them that execution would bring closure, but really only offered these people saltwater to drink, since indignation and vengeance only bring a desire for more of the same. 

Many people come to us wounded, as they do to many if not most other churches.  What do we offer them beyond a shared experience of rejection and oppression or righteous indignation veneered with the language of justice?  Do they come into our churches to find people who are as stuck and angry as they feel?  Do we offer more than slogans that show how enlightened we are?

We are called to be love at work in the world.  Certainly part of that work is to bind and heal, but that is only part of the calling to have life and have it more abundantly.  Some may come to us seeking affirmation and we may play an important part at a critical juncture in someone’s life in this way, but this is triage work and most people will move on when that need has been met if they don’t sense that something more fundamentally transformative is on offer.  In more extreme cases, our peddling of features rather than offering benefits may leave some feeling that religion has nothing to offer beyond an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, a palliative respite rather than fundamental transformation.

If we are offering someone no more than a shared identity as one of the righteous or one who has earned his or her battle scars for righteousness’ sake, are we offering any more than the worst sort of fundamentalist churches that offer people salvation as divine fire insurance but do little to tell them how to live and grow toward God?

So, what are we offering?