Shortly after I posted last week's comments, Alan Rutherford and I had lunch together and we talked about some of the points I raised. Alan has given dedicated service over many years to Reedwood Friends Church, but these days he and his family are worshipping elsewhere. He talked about his search for integrity in evangelism and in worship. I encouraged him to contribute his thoughts to this blog, and offered to help by asking some specific questions. Here are my questions (in italics) and his responses.
Johan: 1. From the post itself: What are some of the features of postmodern society that may make it a more promising arena for evangelism? And, ... 2. What are the specific requirements for effective evangelism imposed by postmodern society?
Alan: (I'll respond to these two questions together.) Whenever we can unearth common ground between our biblical story and the prevailing world view, we can use it as a starting point for sharing. For example, Christians were skeptical about modernity's myths of progress (peace, prosperity, and salvation for all), or should have been. The same skepticism has become widespread in postmodern society. Look at the way NT Wright describes it: "postmodernity has come along and basically blown a raspberry at modernity and said, you know, all your righteousness is as filthy rags... you’ve just been building the tower of Babel, and God is coming down to have a little giggle at it and to confuse your languages."
We can also frame the Christian story as an alternative to the mythology of empire. Actually, it is already expressed that way throughout the New Testament. This should resonate with people who've had it with up-to-here with empty promises of salvation, peace, and prosperity from the "war on terror," global capitalism, the religious Right, or irresistible forces such as the media or Walmart.
I'm not sure that evangelism is getting easier, however. I am reminded of Rebecca Manley Pippert's account of the history of Investigative Bible Discussions, which she helped InterVarsity develop back in the 60s or 70s at Reed College. She recalls that discussions were pretty lively back in the day. Most students receiving a liberal education were unreceptive to the gospel, if not openly hostile. Fast forward to today: Pippert reports that Bible discussions at Reed are much more serene. You'd think that Generation Y postmoderns would condemn the Christian story as oppressive, but she reports that they politely listen, as they are inclined to listen to other peoples' perspectives, especially about spirituality. Instead of regarding one's faith in God as something to investigate (like a fact in a test tube), it is seen as one's perspective.
I confess that I'm not much different. I regard the faith of my Buddhist next-door neighbor, the one across the street, or the Hare Krishna couple two doors down, with respect; I don't believe they're on the right path, but it's their path and I feel reluctant or unable to steer them toward mine. Besides, I know they've heard the Christian story plenty of times, because they grew up in Christian homes and societies. And I don't have much faith in my own ability to retell it effectively enough to convert them back to Christ. Our effort (as a family) goes into living lives with integrity and lots of interaction with our neighbors, who know we're the Christians on the block and the ones who throw most of the neighborhood parties. When I was young, I was taught that apologetics was the key to converting those from other faiths. I just can't imagine that working now. When we discover that our faith in Yahweh is more than just an objective fact in a test-tube, but a story, a relationship, a covenant, and a community, then we are thinking in terms which will resonate with our contemporaries.
Johan: 3. What role does worship and the worshipping community play in evangelism?
Alan: Worship's primary role is not evangelism. Worship can only be done by those who recognize the worthiness of God. It is directed toward God, rather than the congregation or unbelievers. Theologians from more liturgical traditions talk about worship's ability to form us as a community. Here are some interesting quotes: Stanley Hauerwas: "One learns through common practices like the liturgy. Practices and rituals help the story of one's life take shape. One learns that as a Christian one is here to be a glorifier of God; one's whole life depends upon that." NT Wright: "Christian worship is humbly adoring the Creator God and thereby being renewed in his image." Marva Dawn: "Worship is a subtle but strong formative agent... To focus the worship on evangelistic introduction deprives our children and ourselves of the deeper nurturing they and we need to live as Church and deprives God of the intimate worship due his name." Samuel Wells: "Through story, sacrament, and Spirit, God has given his people all that they ned to live with him. The church's creative energies are largely concerned with preparing its members to be able to respond by habit to unforseeable turns of events." This last quote, from his wonderful book Improvisation: The drama of Christian ethics, reflects Sam Wells's view that rituals are an opportunity to practice, with our bodies, the Christian disciplines. (See here for comments on this book.)
I would like to see churches intentionally equip themselves for evangelism, especially those communities who emphasize social justice, because they are usually allergic to it and never get around to it. That's too bad, because they could learn to do it with such integrity, I think.
Johan: 4. How do Christians provide for different temperaments, different ways of understanding the relationship between symbol and reality?
Alan: Clearly, different Christian denominations represent different temperaments and ways of thinking. It's easy to see how this came about. Each one came about in a unique time and place, shaping its personality, how it pictures God, its doctrine, its language, its liturgy, etc. These differences do not necessarily fade over time, either, because of natural processes of assimilation: communities attract and keep people who feel at home, and gradually lose those who don't.
Should we rely solely on denominations to achieve the diversity in the Body of Christ that Paul calls for in I Corinthians 12? Surely not. Worship ought to bring a diversity of temperaments and understandings together around Christ's story. If it doesn't, 'communion' has no meaning at all.
I'm not saying that all denominations should be abolished. After all, if we believe that Christ came for the whole world, we should expect to see numerous different cultural manifestations of the Church, and enjoy it for its rich diversity and for the message that it sends: that dead white guys didn't think up the Church, Christ did.
Pastors and leaders should constantly ask themselves, are we providing enough variety in our messages, worship, and programs, to accommodate different gifts, temperaments and understandings of God?
I'd like to take a look at Robert Stephen Reid's The Four Voices of Preaching. Brazos Press's blurb says this new book identifies four distinct voices that preachers gravitate toward: teaching, encouraging, sage, and testifying. Reid encourages preachers to claim their voice rather than embracing a one-size-fits-all approach. I wonder if this could be used as a tool for serving the different needs in a community.
Johan: 5. What challenges might you specifically address to Quakers, based on your inside knowledge of our myths, conceits, and valid insights?
Alan: Postmodern society is impatient with many familiar categories such as high class/low class, new/old, left/right, east/west. We all know that distinctions also abound within the Church, as I was just mentioning. There are three main branches, Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox, and more punctilious distinctions within Protestantism too numerous to mention. Each denomination is defined in part by its own liturgy, that is, what form does its worship take. Recently, worship leaders from many traditions have begun using ancient forms of worship, borrowing from other traditions, creating new forms, and mixing them together in surprising ways--to the consternation of many. This has not, however, come as a surprise to those who are familiar with Postmodern forms of creative expression. Architecture, literature, music (especially hip-hop), video, and fashion all have an eclectic, cut-and-paste quality, sometimes known as pastiche. They all express the impatience with the strictness of Modern categorization that I was talking about. In light of this, Quakers find themselves at a unique disadvantage since their liturgy excludes many forms of expression. What is a Quaker to do if they discover that reciting creeds or performing certain rituals can be a powerful, meaningful response to God?
Another challenge I have is, what do you do with those have never enjoyed a direct, first-hand experience of God? This describes a lot of Christians, including me. I joined the Friends church because of its ethical teachings that come right out of the Bible (but that many had forgotten): plain speech, simple living, and the peace testimony. What got to me was the emphasis on experience. I'm not saying experience was used over and against scripture by Evangelical Friends, as it is in the unprogrammed meetings I've attended. But Evangelical Friends give experience roughly equal status to scripture. This has its dangers: it leads to doubt in those who never sense God; it gives more authority to those who sense God than to those who don't; it fragments the community because experience is often very personal; and it often rests on the fallacious idea that if one simply checks their leading with scripture, and finds no conflict, then it's from God. What I'm suggesting here iss that it's quite possible for one's personal leading to be in harmony with scripture, nothing wrong with it whatsoever, but it's not necessarily a message from God. How can one know?
When someone rises in open worship, and says something somewhere between half-baked and ridiculous, I have a problem calling that worship. I may have spent the week reading scripture or Christian writings by diligent thinkers, or listening to Bach chorales. I find it hard to come into a meeting where anyone who feels they are led by the Holy Spirit is invited to speak. How can one know? I've been told one could "feel" it, both by those who said appropriate things and by those who spoke rubbish. Perhaps the good stuff was from God, but I don't believe the rubbish is. Probably nobody does. At this point in my life, I would rather participate in beautifully crafted, time-tested, Biblically-rooted liturgy--even if it's empty for some of the people in the room--than to be lectured from someone who's about to be eldered.
Johan: 6. What are some intriguing features of other Christian communities you've been visiting or hearing about?
Alan: We attended a Holy Communion service with some Lutheran friends of ours this summer. One of the steps in preparation for communion is sharing the Peace, in which worshipers turn to each other and offer the greetings of peace that Jesus spoke on the first Easter. When this moment came, my friend Wayne made a beeline for my son Henry, extended his hand to him and said his name and some kind words. They had been "butting heads" throughout the day, and this was an offer of reconciliation. To me it was like an acting out of Matthew 5:23..."when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled..." Liturgy can give worshipers a template and opportunity to practice the gospel story.
In an earlier post, I touched on the subject of worship and the dilemmas it raises for those of us who, like the Reedwood Friend I quoted there (not Alan, by the way), resist any symbolism in a worship context. That Friend asserted that we do not need symbols to get in the way of our communion with God. We do not need artful props to simulate or represent the divine encounter, we need the divine encounter itself, and anything else is vain ornamentation.
In my conversation with Alan Rutherford, he brought up an interesting point: Friends may advocate for Quaker worship as allowing the freedom to respond directly to the Holy Spirit, but we often seem unaware of the ways other Christians have addressed and met this desire. My own observations back Alan up: we sometimes seem smug and insular in our criticisms of other Christians, rather than actively involved in an ecumenical discussion where we actually compare our ideals and traditions.
Without that kind of active exchange, I fear that what we Friends are doing is using vague rhetorical shortcuts to bless a way of worship that actually suits the particular temperaments of those of us who show up for Quaker worship. I believe our goal should be universal access (note: that's not the same as universal acceptance), not pious feathers for our own cozy little nest while we preach lifechanging evangelism and radical hospitality.
It doesn't need to be this way. There are sound underpinnings to the Quaker way of worship, including its hybrid forms--programmed meetings with one or more times of open worship--but we need to do the important work of engaging each other and the ecumenical world to test, explain, and refine those underpinnings. (Great example.) If the cost is granting that some other traditions also have sound underpinnings, is that so bad?
Two of the churches that are getting noticed in our area for their worship and evangelism are The Bridge and Imago Dei. I've not been to either, but other Friends have given me favorable reports.
"Evangelism Plus": John Stott reflects on where we've been and where we're going.
"The Gospel of Green" by Bill McKibben of OnEarth Magazine. Sorry for the sour note but see the comments for documentation of the anti-Christian mood among many progressives.
Christianity Today: Contemporary reflections on whether we should stand with or against culture?
Finally: Some sobering words in Quaker Life from Santosh J. Chandy, "Quakerism: does it work now?"