Our preaching class this morning was just about the best one we've had yet this year. No knock on Dr. Kalas.... his task of helping us refine our biblical exegesis and how that gets processed in such a way that makes sense and has power has all been necessary. Sometimes though I wonder if with him we don't spend too much time marveling at the gifts he's crafted over 70 years of preaching.... it's hard not to do. Especially when communication is being impacted visually in so many stimulating ways, one wonders if preaching must take on a more sensory form in order to remain relevant in the future.
But, I digress.
Since Dr. Kalas is now President Kalas, he was in Orlando at the Asbury-Disney Campus speaking and taking questions about this whole "presidential crisis" thing, and our class headed off in a decidely different direction.
Skip this paragraph if you already know why, or aren't really interested in why Dr. Kalas is Asbury's interim president. (For those who haven't been following, earlier this year, Asbury's last president, Jeff Greenway, after two years in office, reached impasse with the Board of Trustees over his style of leadership and vision of the future. After a number of weeks of Board and President refusing to yield to one another, essentially the Board in a special session, voted "no confidence" in Greenway's presidency, and asked for his resignation. Now, Ellsworth Kalas is the new Interim President of Asbury while the Board cleans up the last mess, and starts the process to figure out who should be the next Big Kahuna. In a strange twist of plot that nobody in my home conference could have anticipated, Greenway resurfaced in of all places, the West Ohio Annual Conference as the new Senior Pastor of Reynoldsburg UMC.... our conference's second largest church. Reynoldsburg's pulpit had been filled with an interim senior pastor, since their last senior pastor was removed by the Bishop for improper conduct.)
With Dr. Kalas gone, today a guest lecturer, Dr. Michael Pasquarello II, read to us from a chapter in his upcoming book, which asks the question "What is the point of preaching?". This is a valid question, as there is a growing movement from within western Christianity that is proclaiming that preaching has been so abused as a means of, among other things, manipulating people to support the institution of Christendom, pushing limited agendas, enriching preachers looking for power, and affirming what we already believe even it's wrong, that its time as a vital part of worship has passed. Thus, particularly in the growing "house movement" and in other "emergent church" circles, preaching is being done away with in favor of mutual biblical study and discussion.
This wouldn't be such a big deal to me, if not just yesterday, a friend of mine from a former church was expressing the exact same kind of frustration with the institutional church. A frustration that the local church has done so much "navel gazing" so as to perpetuate it's own existance, that it has missed the greater purpose of Jesus in the world.... to live into the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus, my friend and his wife had a discussion of whether or not to turn their back on the church as a whole, and simply starting something else. And, what's more, these are life-long church, baby-boomer upper-middle class folks living in middle America.
Pasquarello's idea is that the last gasp of the Christian Church as we have known it since the days of Constantine is the "mega-church", and it's demise is very, very close. These are churches who find their meaning, in the end, in mainly growing large in term of worship attendance and inner-church programmed activity, changing few lives but attracting a lot of people who already believed in Jesus but wanted more convenience and service. They distill what most existing believers want into a highly refined form of what has been (namely worship, but also teaching, child care, environment, etc...), pummling existing churches who try to offer the same things, but much more inefficiently and ineffectively.
Those who are pushing the post-modern Christian movement, believe that for about 1700 years now, Christianity has been embraced by western culture as being the "right faith", but since the church became enamoured with establishing its dominance over all facets of the world in incredibly detrimental ways, the kind of transformation you would expect Jesus' teaching to have in a world, socially, politically and relationally has not been realized. Thus the end product of this ineffective way of evangelization and Kingdom manifestation is now be confirmed in it's end product which is measuring success solely in the numbers of worshippers acheived, while achieving little impact on individuals and the world as a whole. Post-modern Christians want to de-construct what has been the purpose of the church (self-perpetuation of the institution, the elevation of the individual over collective responsibility, confirming existing power forms, de-spiritualizing the Gospel message, etc...) and re-construct it in such a way that individual AND earthly transformation (a living out of The Lord's Prayer) can take place.
Of course, a lot of post-modern ideas are pretty wacky... everything from hyper-spiritual emotionalism to hyper-stoic self-denial, but Pasquerello's work, while critical of the more bizzare post-modern forms, identifies the disconnect between what preachers say they believe, and what they preach, in ways that enable the modern church to still exist, but become increasingly marginalized. Thus, pastors either deny the call of Jesus to individual AND earthly transformation (generally a mistake of more conservative preaching) or the work of the Holy Spirit to reform the forces that shape individuals and the world (generally a mistake of more liberal preaching). His work does not really shape what the alternative will be, but defines what is in harsh tones.... which kinda got the gander up of a number of my classmates, who didn't care for some of polemics he was drawing.
And, it'd be accurate to say that it served to animate me also, but in the sense that what I thought I heard coming out of my classmate's mouths was that the greater Christian struggle was for the individual to survive this wicked world as a Chrisitan faith in-tact, AS OPPOSED TO living every day as Christian who believes the world is redeemable but understands the true cost of that redemption... and that the cost must be paid anyway.
In one case, the Christian is trying to survive the way the world is, and the other the Christian is contemplating what is being demanded in terms of transformation. Thus, does greater dispair come from believing that the world is flawed and must be survived, OR that the world is transformable but that it will come at great personal risk and cost, forcing us to ask how much we really trust the Lord?
You can guess what I think, and maybe in our discussion this morning, we were just different people saying the same thing a different way..... (right now I'm wrinkling up my nose)
Which got me thinking..... has the church, out of sense of failure, exchanged the vision of humanity's participation in God's transformation of lives and the world, for an escapist theology where we say "come over here and be like us, and you'll escape the true horrors of living metaphorically (in our teaching), physically (in the blessing of good health and material goods if we only believe OR in by giving stuff away but not yourself to my cause), and eschatalogically (by avoiding the tribulations that come with Kingdom living AND transformation OR not acknoweldging the reality of spiritual reality).
AND if this is the case, if the church has lost its way, or at least has become destracted, what then should its object be? How should that be lived out, individually and corporately? How are the powers and principalities that shape the world redeemed to shape it into what God intends.
Most importantly, should we even aspire to transformation of the creation, as well as the lives of individuals... or even believe it possible?
Christians have been burned so many times over the years, that even thinking there might be the possibility that power, knowledge, and the collective will could be re-oriented in a way that all people could live out lives of dignity and respect in a world cared for in such a way as to perpetuate the kind of life God intended for ALL, in some Christian circles is like muttering a swear word. It's like you either compromised "born again Christianity", or are hanging onto to some spiritual myth. You say this stuff, and the detractors say...
Don't you remember how we colluded with kings who used the cross to perpetuate bloody wars?
Don't you remember how our missionaries went out under the auspices of spreading the Gospel, and succeeded mainly in paving the way for colonialism?
Don't you remember how we persecuted scientists for daring to say that humanity wasn't the center of the universe, and paid dearly by abdicating any authroity in areas of science that desperately need an ethical framework so that good gifts aren't once used in destructive ways?
Don't you remember all the churches who became more about their interpersonal relationships and internal structure, than impacting their communty?
Don't you remember when we thought that the way of the kingdom was paved through social causes and political organization, only to result in more relational complexity and confusion?
Don't you remember how we confused blessing with materialistic self-gratification?
And some say we lost our way cause we made it all about "alter calls", and others say that we lost our way cause we stopped calling people to the alter. So, in one quarter your told, "Eh, forget world transformation. It'll just take a supernatural act of God anyway. It's all about transforming one life at a time, and living out life while everything else goes to hell only be saved fully by God sans our sinful selves in the end." OR "We've been enamoured with all the wrong things, trying to uphold myth and fantasy while millions have died due to malnutrition and disease. We've got to transform the world ourselves, and quit waiting on a supernatural act of God to save us."
And yet, Jesus calls us to use, not bury our talents. He calls us to defeat and foolishness as a means to greater wisdom and kingdom manisfestation. He calls us to live in a Kingdom that is, but is not fully realized, and yet will be! He casts out demons and raised people from the dead.
He takes what is despised or considered impossible, and make it reality. Stuff as crazy as the meek inheriting the earth.
Living in, but not of the world, I dare say, is a bastardization of what Jesus said when he told us to take ahold of that which was intended to be given to us from the foundation of the world.... which to say, is everything. Living in, and of the world doesn't take the spiritual reality of that which cannot be seen seriously.
Jesus said that the sheep and the goats are separated at the end of time as a direct outcome of how we saw the world and God's presence when we were living here. Do we believe that the creation though it has been perverted by sin, was still created good, and has been redeemed?
Gotta go do something else... but it was a good class.