Sunday, January 07, 2007

Fighting the Last War?

I was struck by a story that appeared in the Faith section of Saturday’s Kansas City Star. Titled “The New Missionaries,” it is about a mission conference recently held in St. Louis, and about the young people who attended. Sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Urbana 06 conference provided as clear a focus on the social gospel as on preaching as important aspects of mission work.

It was also a stark motivator for a new generation to change the face and attitude of missions by finally tackling social crises that the suburban evangelical church has long been accused of neglecting: namely, the global AIDS pandemic, hunger and urban poverty.

What sets this globalized, “YouTube” generation apart, say evangelical leaders, is that their traditional message of “personal salvation” in Jesus more readily engages his gospel of social justice.

“You are the reformation generation — whatever it takes,” challenged Rick Warren, the iconic megachurch pastor from Southern California and author of the best-selling Purpose Driven Life.

Known for courting rock stars and foreign leaders in the fight against AIDS, Warren headlined a bevy of international speakers advocating an end to Westernized, “paternalistic” missions overseas, and even a backyard “reverse missiology” focused on America’s own cities.

The full article is well worth reading. It suggests that may young Christians are prepared to bring their evangelical fervor to such important social issues as AIDS and hunger, and to do so both at home and abroad, in a way that their parents’ generation has had difficulty with. Conservative evangelicals criticize the progressives for commitment to “the social gospel” as if that were incompatible knowing one’s need for God and being saved by grace through faith. Progressives criticize conservative evangelicals for having faith without works, and “being so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good.” In fact all of us know that both are necessary, but we can get so caught up in the arguments that we don’t get anything else done. These young people are willing to dispense with the arguments and get on with the work.

It was particularly interesting to see this article shortly after seeing this article from the Episcopal News Service. It reports on information from the Faith Communities Today 2005 Survey from Hartford Seminary. It’s an extensive study, but a good summary is available on line, and is well worth reviewing, too. Here are some of the results from the ENS report that struck me.

  • Conservative Episcopal congregations were much more likely to have experienced very serious conflict during the last five years than moderate or liberal congregations (a similar, but weaker relationship was also discovered in the FACT 2000 study).
  • [Among Episcopal churches] Predominantly liberal and somewhat liberal congregations are somewhat more likely to have experienced growth during the last five years than more conservative congregations.
  • Congregations that change worship format and style are more likely to grow. More than half the congregations that use contemporary styles of worship have experienced substantial growth since 2000. Frequency is important as well: The more worship services a congregation holds, the more likely it is to have grown. Over half of the congregations that use drums and or electric guitars often or always in their worship services have experienced "substantial growth" from 2000 to 2005, the report says. "The relationship is fairly strong in the overall set of congregations, but considerably stronger among evangelical churches and weakest among mainline churches," according to the report.
  • Congregations that have experienced major conflict are quite likely to have declined in attendance. The strongest correlate of growth is the absence of serious conflict.
  • More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission and purpose. Growing churches are clear about why they exist and about what they are to be doing.

So, contrary to much of the rhetoric, and to the truism of the past generation that evangelical churches were growing specifically because of their evangelical theology, in fact in many churches, and especially among Episcopal churches in this study, it was the clarity of vision and mission that made the difference, and not one pole or the other in the theological debate.

Which brings me to ask this question: are we fighting the last war? In our political discourse, and especially when we have a true fighting war in progress, we often worry about “fighting the last war:” facing new situations with poor preparation because it was based on the last, inevitably different, conflict rather than on the facts in front of the troops. So, we worry about whether difficulties in Iraq have been caused by trying to revisit the jungles of Viet Nam or the political ideologies Cold War in the heat and drought of the Iraqi desert.

So in our current difficulties in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion: are we fighting the last war? Are we defending positions of high church vs. low church, of Evangelical vs. Anglo-catholic, of biblical faith vs. social gospel, when the real action has largely left those considerations behind? I have often seen it stated in discussions of social and political opinions that many folks younger than me are not particularly concerned about who one loves or how. We might take our positions and argue about whether that is progressive or regressive; but have we appreciated that it is simply fact? And have we considered that young and enthusiastic Christians are prepared to accept and share the faith that is in them without investing in our arguments?

I think it’s important for us to think about in the midst of those things that trouble us. We take our positions and defend them. We choose our champions who will defend them for us. We seek those champions among our known leaders, peers and seniors who have established themselves in these arguments in the past. Perhaps we need once again to look for leadership in a new direction. After all, it was God’s word, and not our own, that “a little child shall lead them.”

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