Is it important that we speak compellingly about Jesus? asks Jim Naughton on Episcopal Café. There is a lot we can talk about in church: social justice, exegeting the Bible, even church structures, for God’s sake. But what about Jesus?
I believe that Jesus was the most compelling human being who ever lived. He could look at people, speak a few words, and change them forever. People gave away everything they owned to follow him, up to and including their very lives. Two millennia later, his life and witness is still so compelling that he has over 2 billion followers in the world – almost a third of the earth’s population.
Yet sometimes I fear that in today’s Episcopal Church, we are losing sight of Jesus. We get so involved in our structures and our social programs and our conflicts that we somehow lose sight of the main thing: the Son of God lived, proclaimed, and enacted the Kingdom of God. And the Resurrected Son of God still lives and calls us to follow him in proclaiming and enacting that Kingdom.
But look, once again, at the matters that consume our church.
- We follow a Savior who had no place to lay his head, yet we maintain a vast, hierarchical, corporate bureaucracy, headquartered in Manhattan of all places, which will spend over a hundred million dollars over the course of the next three years – 55% of which is on administration and governance! What about Jesus?
- We have so many canonical requirements that we have no money to spend on Christian Formation (or, rather, we choose not to spend that money). Empowering local congregations to make and teach new disciples is apparently not a high enough priority to spend money on (though the churchwide finance department is worth $15 million to us), so we are willing to jettison any kind of churchwide support for Christian Formation. Evidently we assume that somehow, someone will pick up the slack – even though we have made no transition plans to make sure that happens. We have forgotten that Christian Formation is a vital way that people come to know Jesus.
- The time and energy of over 800 deputies (including me) and however-many bishops will be consumed this summer in an adversarial process to pass legislation that will necessarily create winners and losers and cause some minority voices to go unheeded. We will sit through hearings, and amendments, and amendments to the amendments, and points of personal privilege, and many of us will privately wonder whatever happened to Jesus.
- For some Episcopal leaders, “mission” seems to be equivalent to charity work. The Millennium Development Goals have become the reason for our existence, under this way of thinking. Worthy and exciting as those MDG goals are, I fear that we are in danger of becoming nothing more than a social service agency with stained glass windows. The kingdom of God is bigger than that. It includes worship, and service, and evangelism, and teaching, and healing, and proclamation - all the ways in which we follow Jesus.
- We are in chronic, long-term, unfocused conflict. Just at the time when the long-running conflict over the place of gays and lesbians in the church seems to be heading toward a settlement, people who were once on the same side of that issue are in conflict with each other over a new set of issues. We have lost trust in each other as faithful servants of Jesus.
And at the same time, our witness to Jesus is not being heard. Surely, Jesus is faithfully preached, week after week, in our liturgies, and God’s grace in him is made present in our sacraments. But membership, attendance, and finances in The Episcopal Church are all continuing to decline. We are not proclaiming Jesus in a compelling enough way that people are coming to meet him in our church. And we can’t even focus on that decline because we are too busy arguing with each other.
It is time for a change. The mid-20th-century bureaucratic corporate paradigm was right for the time it was created, but it is not right for our time. We need to change the way we order our common life together. We need to find a way through all this conflict. We need to use our resources wisely, for the mission that Jesus is sending us to do. We need to follow Jesus.
Let’s put everything on the table at this Convention – the budget, the structures of the church, the shape of Convention itself. Let’s not spend our time wrangling over niceties in an endless series of resolutions that will make no difference to the church. Instead, let’s have a conversation about where Jesus is leading us. Let’s pray and read the Bible and discern where God is calling us to go. Let’s network and share and listen for the voices of the ones who aren’t often heard – the younger, less experienced people who have a better understanding of the future that lies ahead.