I have gotten, in the last few days, no small amount of flack about my post on the Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. I will say that my willingness to post such a missive demonstrates one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism – we can have the conversation. I love being part of a Church in which the things that frustrate us are points of conversation and debate.
I thought, after a day or two, that it might be helpful to talk a little about the cultural context and why I think our new cultural realities demand a different kind of engagement with the world than the message offered.
One critique I heard was that it was obvious that she was talking about Jesus – look at the terms she uses “Word” and “Prince of Peace.” Yet, even as those terms were used, there was little declaration about what it exactly means for the whole of humanity that a Savior was born among us who is the Word made Flesh and the Prince of Peace.
We are reaching a cultural point in which the majority of those coming of age will have little or no real exposure to the Gospel message. I cannot count the number of people who come through the doors – young people – who have no idea who Jesus is. I have been literally asked, repeatedly, “Who is Jesus?”
Public messages from leaders in our Church are an opportunity for us to lay out, for a new generation, who Christ is and what his birth and resurrection victory mean for the whole of the human family. Whether we like it or not much of our engagement with the emerging generations is going to feel a little remedial. That’s because people are asking us “Who is Jesus?” because they haven’t heard it much before and they haven’t seen it much lived out either.
Too many of our churches, across denominational lines, are offering training for our youth that is, as writer Kenda Creasy Dean says, a form of “therapeutic moral deism.” It is the kind of faith that is comforting for those who grew up in religiously abusive environments and it is vague enough not to scare off those who have only experienced Church as a source of shame or fear.
(If you doubt the challenges we face in Episcopal Christian formation – I invite you to look at this post I did on the National Study of Youth and Religion – and the follow up piece here.)
However, the fruit of that kind of religion has been, quite simply, the hollowing of the Church. There are many, many more factors at play in the decline of churches across the spectrum. But here is the core problem – when people ask (aloud or silently) “Why does the Church matter?” We often aren’t offering much.
We are meeting a national cultural identity crisis with an identity crisis of our own. There are people across our country who are begging to find hope and meaning in the world around them and the Church is that place which is most poised to answer that yearning – if we have the courage and conviction to welcome others to the Body. We can boldly do this not for our benefit but in thanks for all of the benefits of Christ’s own victory.
The challenge for the Church now is not soft-peddling our message of Christian hope found in Christ out of fear of offending but to know ourselves so caught up in the saving love of Christ that the only thing we can do is share that hope with others. Messages like a primate’s Christmas and Easter messages are a prime place for this to happen – to set a vision and course for the Church and her faithful people.
There is a desperate need for a faith in this country that is clear, welcoming, and theologically orthodox. I use the term orthodox not to create boundaries and limits but to indicate that we can be a Church that welcomes and affirms not because we are avoiding theological truth and spiritual rigor but because of them. I use the term welcoming not to indicate that we fling open the doors and just gather about and do yoga and hold hands – but because we welcome all into the life-giving work and labor of the Christian faith as we come to know Christ at the Altar and are sent out in reckless joy.
Those coming to our churches are not looking for one more place to be affirmed or marketed to – they are looking for a place that will unmake and remake them. Whether they can articulate it or not their search for hope and meaning is grounded in a search for the grace and hope we hold dear.
They are yearning for Baptism. They are yearning for Communion. They are yearning to be transformed.
The commitment so many young people are making to things like the Episcopal Service Corps, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps demonstrates the real longing that our young people have not only to make a difference but to find out who they truly are in the context of a community that offers not a new identity but gives them a chance to know their true identity bound up with Christ’s own.
They are not looking for an easy, vague, or veiled faith. They are hyper-marketed to and don’t have time to sift through what they think we might be saying.
They are struggling to find a place that is authentic and real – that offers a faith that is a both mysterious and gritty – that breaks bread with dirt under the nails. Messages that soft-peddle the Incarnation and the Resurrection are simply not going to communicate the kind of authenticity and vigor that a new generation of seekers is demanding of us.
If we want people to hear, see, and know that the Church is making a difference we must be clear that we are different not because we are here but because Christ is.