WHERE’S THE SACRIFICE IN THE “SACRIFICE OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING”?

I’m struggling or, I’ll be honest, I’m continuing to struggle with the self-centered, fairly vapid ideas on the marketplace today about how people go about growing congregations or doing Christian ministry.

My particular lens, these days, involves the work we’re currently engaged in at St. George’s, Valley Lee: expanding our music program and helping take our worship life in new directions.  I’m finding a rich world of music and worship thought-leaders, both within and beyond The Episcopal Church, but most often there’s this underlying implication, this nagging insistence connecting growing music and growing churches.

Sure, those connections are there.  But they may not be related causally.  And I suspect they’re not linked as much as we might think.

Life-giving worship has everything to do with what the Prayer Book calls “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” that very phrase which is grounded in scripture (Hebrews 13:15, Psalm 100:4) and which Archbishop Cranmer himself inserted in the original text.  That worship is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” reminds us that the church is not about us — not about re-sacrificing Christ on the altar, not about a priest standing in persona Christi.  Worship is for the purpose of proclaiming, once again, the work that God in Christ has already done, namely, reconciling the whole of creation to its Source and Creator.  Worship is about God, adoring God just like the Angels and Archangels apparently do without ceasing for no other reason than that is “right and a good and joyful thing” to tie our story to the divine.

The problem, however, is that current thinking about dynamic congregations has more to do with technical, mechanistic, directorial, astonishingly secular business models of ‘leadership,’ models we’ve been fed as clergy and lay leaders in mainline (old-line?) American Protestantism.  Even more astonishing is that in spite of the obvious crumbling of those cathedrals of thought — consider, for instance, the effective shuttering of The Alban Institute — they’re the very same models we keep feeding ourselves, time and time again.

We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of cultural criticism and post-modern analysis.  I read this stuff, too, and I know it has, potentially, positive gifts, but I’m afraid too many of us mainliners are better able to quote cultural trends and talk about the end of Christendom than we’re able to re-tweet the words of Jesus in the gospels.

We’ve borrowed the language of post-modernity, whose self-critical apparatus was actually supposed to lead to some series of profound change, in order to prop up our decidedly modern, self-obsessed institution.  We steer close to and then quickly run away from the fact that that death, that seed which needs to die so it can grow into something new (John 12:24), also involves us, involves The Episcopal Church, and involves getting over the fact that we may not appear or even act as competently and be as effective as this secular world needs its so-called ‘leaders’ to be.  “‘Effectiveness’ is not a Scriptural concept,” writes the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony, “and neither is it one affirmed in traditions of Christian theological reflection.  The foundational model of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and his disciples, was expressed in a radical powerlessness.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I should know, p.33)

At St. George’s, we’re exploring a new model of music and worship.  I’ve promised I’ll more intentionally blog about this and share, at least, my own thinking.  Just last week, I already started doing so on the Episcopal Church Foundation’s ‘Vital Practices’ series (click here).  Similar pieces will come, both on this blog and at ECF Vital Practices.

Before we begin, though, we also need to be exceedingly clear about our purpose.  Ever since I arrived in Valley Lee, now, seven summers ago, we’ve been at work on a huge goal, and we’ve been pulling this thread through every other aspect of our life together at St. George’s.  We’ve revised our By-Laws and our approach to financing and budget-making.  We’ve effectively changed how we share ministries and authority and power.  Fundamentally, the goal is to make this institution, this organization in St. Mary’s County, Maryland vastly more like an unmistakably Christ-centered organism and less like a self-obsessed consumer of people’s time and energy, much more like the early apostolic fellowship of believers, a gathering that also drove them to serve and live more boldly in the world, and less like an institution that appears to take more it gives.

We haven’t yet touched Sunday mornings.  That is where we are right now, and it’s going to require the same level of clarity, self-critical reflection, strictly theological discernment and, perhaps, sacrifice as those processes which led to the other changes in the ways we function and relate to one another.  It’s going to require us to be honest about the purpose of worship and the role of music and, above all, to be exceedingly cautious whenever we stray near the dangerous, solipsistic thinking that growth in music will bring about growth in the church for the purposes of growing the institution called ‘church’.  To be fair, these pitfalls are already there in the dominant literature’s careless assumptions, forgetting at its core that there’s sacrifice involved in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

Some weeks ago, I invited the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony to join us at our southern Maryland Episcopal clergy gathering.  The Associate Dean of Students at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Lewis-Anthony is also the author of the wonderfully challenging book, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: “Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry”) and has recently published an equally excellent book, You are the Messiah and I should know (subtitle: “Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a heresy)”).  His talk that afternoon was as thorough and challenging as his corpus of work — and, yes, as witty as is his clear knack at titles.  He’s helped deepen and challenge, for me, dominant strands of thinking about music and worship and the life and work of the Christian church today.

Take our southern Maryland Clericus as an example, you see.  A group that averages fifteen or so come out once a month from September through June for lunch and prayer and conversation.  From time to time, mostly when I get around to it, our afternoon is enriched by a guest conversation partner, someone to pick our brains or stimulate our thinking or, too often, someone who’s part of the institution called The Episcopal Church / The Episcopal Diocese of Washington and who may have a great idea or who has to suffer through listening to what we think is a great idea.  Mostly, however, our purpose is fellowship because, frankly, when we do get some brilliant idea — or when someone else’s brilliant idea is imported to our lunch table — it generally goes nowhere.  People on the bishop’s staff are busy taking care of what the bishop wants taken care of and when those rectors leave that lunch table they, too, are overtaken by the matter their senior warden needs them to think about or what the altar guild chairperson is busy fussing about this week.  The Christian church has figured out a remarkable way to serve itself — dioceses serve the goal of dioceses and congregations serve their own purposes.  Even more frightening, we’ve developed a whole language of management and ‘leadership’ to justify doing what we do and why we do it.

Because it’s about us.

But it’s not, is it?  It’s not about us, nor has the purpose and mission of the Christian church ever been. If we really are Christ’s body, we’d better start acting like that self-sacrificial organism and learn, in turn, what “glory” really means.  And if our primary gathering is worship, that work which we’re now focusing on at St. George’s, we’d do well to re-discover the particular role of sacrifice in that “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.

For my own part, I’m considering Justin Lewis-Anthony’s words of caution:

“We do not know what we are talking about when we attempt to talk about leadership.  When we do talk about leadership, we are, unknowingly, not being theological, in the sense of speaking coherently about the God who revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures, in the traditions of the Christian church, and, pre-eminently, in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.  There is a savage disconnect, between attempts to treat leadership in a pseudo-theological manner and the real nature of leadership, which should become apparent in the remainder of this book.  We are, dangerously, attempting to yoke ourselves with unbelievers.  We are pretending that heresy can be put in the service of the church.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah, p.34)

LITURGICAL RENEWAL AND THE BLAME GAME

I really don’t get it.  Every weekend, leading up to and following Sunday morning worship celebrations, I see a sufficient spattering of good news and joy across the Episcopal Church.  Well, let me clarify: scrolling across my Facebook news feed (like many, I’m ‘friends’ with lots of folks in the Episcopal Church whom I’ve never met, and maybe never will) I read about baptisms and confirmations and well-attended adult forums and good Sunday Schools and great teachers and strong attendance and dynamic worship involvement.  In the context of my own parish, as well, our numbers are up and have stayed up and our giving is increasing and participation in ministries is strong and, most important of all, there’s a real spirit of joy and openness and laughter and spiritual growth and exploration.

But the other numbers, the real numbers, some may say, keep going down.

We know the state of those numbers all too well.  The National Council of Churches, for instance, reported that between 1992 and 2002 the Episcopal Church lost 32% of its membership, dropping to 2.3 million.  At the close of 2012, in fact, membership dropped to 1.89 million, a loss over the course of one year of nearly 29,000 people.  Between 2011 and 2012, 69 Episcopal congregations closed, leaving 6,667 parishes in 2012, an average of only 283 ‘members’ per parish.  2012’s total Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) was 640,142.  Given that 68% of the congregations have an ASA of fewer than 100, whereas only 4% have an ASA of over 300 that means the median Average Sunday Attendance is only 64 people, and I’ll bet they are increasingly getting older.

Wait a minute.  In the midst of all those truly depressing numbers, I forgot my point.

Oh, right.  Who do we blame?

Given that these declining numbers clearly show that we were getting it right not that long ago — in 1960 there were nearly twice as many (3,269,325) Episcopalians as there are today — somebody’s got to get blamed.  Somebody failed.  For those who remember 1960 and its apparent heyday and those who have some modicum of investment in the maintenance of major American cultural institutions, the hierarchical leadership of those obvious institutions are, obviously, most at fault.  The conclusion, therefore, is that we blame the seminaries, bishops, and clergy.  Their apparent failure of leadership has dwindled the flock; they aren’t offering much of anything so the people walked.  (There is probably some truth to this argument.)

In turn, the leaders of those institutions generally offer some vague and fluffy retort about cultural shifts and the ways in which the world fundamentally changed between then and now, coupling that argument with complaints about how little power they actually have and that they’ve never really been able to bring about the changes the world so desperately needs anyway.  (There is probably some truth to this argument, as well.)  So seminaries remind us that they’ve only got these potential leaders for three years, and it matters so much more where they’ve come from and where they’re going.  And bishops complain that they can’t act unilaterally until and unless parishes and clergy say they want it.  And clergy on the ground say their hands are tied by unwilling lay leadership.  And the vast majority of lay leaders are increasingly walking away, such as the numbers suggest, while those who remain are hunkering down into positions of guardianships of what once was.

Can we stop now?

Look, nothing positive is going to happen until we do the work of restoration from within.  We know the trend that’ll continue if we keep up our present patterns of blame and behavior.

There’s no lack of great work being done in liturgical renewal and leadership development.  There’s no lack of great ideas.  There is, however, a fundamental lack of real and genuine trust, especially between the orders of the church: bishops gather with bishops, clergy with clergy, laity with laity, all planning and strategizing and, yes, we know it, complaining about the other bunch.

What we haven’t tried, thus far, is to restore the whole, to restore some basic level of trust.  We haven’t been so good about wondering aloud and venturing together and putting forward a proposition and seeing where it lands and where the Holy Spirit might take it.  We haven’t been so good, frankly, at thinking the best of the ‘other’, so we try something new — we may even find life in that thing — but we’re all too quick to remind ourselves of the one or two people who will resist it and crush it, in time, so we go into the situation guarded, ready for a fight.  Guess what we get as a result?

What I suspect I’m seeing, at least anecdotally on social media, is the emergence of a new order of business.  I’m hearing about people, laity and priests and deacons and bishops alike, who are thinking out loud and asking truly open-ended questions:  Why do we do Christian formation only on Sunday morning?  Why do we do our pledge drive this way?  Why do we only worship in a church building and only on a Sunday morning?  Why do we hold our Annual Meeting / Diocesan Convention this weekend?  Why don’t we share ministries with other local congregations?  Why do we say that only these people are ‘members’ of this church?  In  countless parishes and communities and dioceses, there’s a growing interest in paying attention to the banal, the day-to-day, the lived experience of those people in that place.  And that’s been a long time coming.

For the first time, I’d say, we’re starting to carry forward into the local, lived experience of Episcopal Christians the ideas and ideals of the 20th century liturgical renewal.  That movement which gave birth to an ecumenical Council as well as, for us, a new Prayer Book had much more to do with the nature of church, writ large, and the vision of what it means to be the People of God, the Body of Christ than it did with how we worship, what furniture goes where, and what words we use.  The Rev’d John Oliver Patterson, then headmaster of the Kent School in Connecticut, wrote in a 1960 volume about liturgical renewal that “we deal…more with the rather drab realities of the situation at hand.  ‘Mystery theology’ must somehow be related to an 8:00 AM service; the doctrine of man must somehow be applied to Mr. John Jones’s specific situation; liturgical art must be thought of in terms of an exisiting building; and the holy fellowship, the mystical Body of Christ, in terms of St. John’s or St. Paul’s or Grace Church parish, its vestry, auxiliary, and men and women in the pews or absent from the pews.”  “My task,” he wrote, “is perhaps to bring that satellite out of orbit, back to earth in such a way that it will not disintegrate and disappear when it comes up against the friction and hard reality of this world’s atmosphere — nor land on a church and blow up the very people it is intended to inform and assist.”  (“The Pastoral Implications of the Liturgical Renewal,” in The Liturgical Renewal of the Church, 1960, pp.123 and following)

Patterson’s thinking is really quite creative and, from what I can tell, hardly put in practice; not then, not now.  He spends no small amount of ink, for instance, writing about creating a parish council — a collective group that would meet periodically to coordinate the interests of the whole, a group which would pay as much attention to relationships as the vestry does to those necessary and important fiduciary concerns.  A parish council could become, he argued, “an exciting, effective technique for drawing out and expressing the loyalty and talent of every cell of the body, if it is used as a means toward the great end.”  Why is it that in so many parish churches the vestry is the be all and end of all power and decision making?  The Canons have very prescribed duties for a vestry, and they are quite few.  Even if we’re not going to create another level of parochial bureaucracy (God help us!) couldn’t we organize ourselves in such a way to better share power and ministry and oversight, a vastly more decentralized system than we’ve had to date?

“Until we have set up the kind of parish in which each member has a chance really to be a parishioner, we are not going to get very far,” Patterson contends; continuing: “Until we have faced fairly and squarely the nature and function of the parish, we cannot successfully move forward in our work.”  It’s on this point, then, that he goes on to talk about worship and liturgical renewal — the list including architecture, furniture placement, involvement of children, Morning Prayer versus Holy Eucharist (this was 1960, after all) and a whole host of other issues.  That our worship life should reflect our common life and that the functions of the organization we’ve created should show forth what we believe about power and authority — whose it is, ultimately, and how we share it, being given it — seem, to me, to make perfect sense.  “Just as we must rethink our techniques of organization and administration, so that our parishes will show a sound doctrine of the Church,” Patterson writes, “so we must rethink the whole matter of ‘common prayer’ so that our services will reflect what both Scripture and tradition agree to be the Christian liturgy.”  In fact, I’d say, not only do these need to happen together but attention to the relationships and power and structure of the congregation, itself, has to happen before we go carelessly ripping altars from the east-facing wall or introducing new Eucharistic prayers or leading new songs.  A budget or an Annual Meeting is just as much a sermon, or is potentially so, as what happens in that designated slot in the liturgy on Sunday morning.

In this ongoing transition perhaps what those communities and congregations I see experiencing renewal on my Facebook news feed, irrespective of whether they’re balancing their books or packing their pews, are really doing is centering their common life on a few profound convictions.  For his part, the Rev’d Patterson offered three and they’re pretty compelling — enough, for me, with which to close this post:

“First: Jesus Christ is Lord.  He is the King of Glory and loyalty to Him must transcend all other loyalties of Christians.”

“Second: The holy Church is the earnest of His Kingdom.  In the holy Church, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians are to realize on earth what they will manifestly be when Christ appears in glory.”

“Third: the Eucharist is the great action of the Church.  It is both the pleading of and the showing forth here and now of the accomplished act of redemption.”

BENEDICTO!

Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about.  There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward.  As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact.  But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again.  Churches are harder places for leadership shifts.   In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.

We don’t like to feel powerless.  That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball.  It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning.  And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”

That’s just it.  We like to be in control.  We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.

And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.

The question is how we deal.  Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t.  Others write poetry or songs.  Some drink, others buy things.  Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge.  And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.

We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not.  We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them.  We are walking, talking contradictions.  Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”  That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy.  To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it.  Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this.  Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest.  We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God.  A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances.  Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning.  Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter.  (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.)  Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness.  Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.

Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people.  It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches.  Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”.  The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well.  When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.

That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world.  He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church.  It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.

So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life.  We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”.  Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.

Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations.  We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge.  We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission.  We’ve been afraid and sheepish.

We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time.  I sense that it’s time.

In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines.  I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons.  I also think we’ve sold ourselves short.  For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood.  That’s just not true.  Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering.   It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work.   It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did.  Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there.  Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center.  They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations.  This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation.  It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.

This is good news, church.  And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned.  It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?

Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days.  Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph.  Well done.