Monday, June 11, 2012

But What About Jesus?

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. 

Let’s set the stage for a real conversation about mission.  I argued here that it is a mistake to make long-term restructuring decisions based on short-term budget considerations.  So let’s not do that.  Let’s pass a transitional budget, as I proposed here, correcting errors, keeping major programs in place and refusing to add new ones.  Then let’s spend the next three years praying, discerning, and talking together, on a grassroots, churchwide level, about Jesus.  Let’s ask Jesus to guide us.  Let’s become a church that, in every part of our common life, loves, follows, and proclaims Jesus.


  1. This is a great piece. But let's be clear--hospitality and inclusion ARE missional issues. They are right at the core of reconciling to world in Christ. Frankly, I'm getting a little tired of hearing about how much more important "Mission" is than the important missional work some of us do EVERY DAY of our lives, not because we want to but because we are called to, because it is inescapable part of who and what we are as Children of God. Mission is not about "them" in the same way that the old fasioned "mission field" is not just Africa or Asia or some place where the Other dwells in decrepitutde and squalor. It's about reconciling the world we have RIGHT HERE and RIGHT NOW with God in Christ.

  2. I agree - Mission is not something that happens somewhere else, that we're supposed to give money to support. Mission is what we do as Christians every day. Mission IS important - but let's get the definition right. All the people of God have a mission.

  3. With respect to the work Rev. Snook puts towards these topics, the structure of this piece makes me a bit nervous: it seems to put forward the notion that Jesus wouldn't like our beaurocratic conversations, but then suggests resolving it by adhering to Rev. Snook's contributions to those conversations in an effort to depart from them with the greatest ease.

    Again, respectfully, I'd invite us to consider that the Holy Spirit continues to move within our conversations, and that it's listening to one another with as much grace and patience as possible that lives out the holiness of the common life we have in Christ. It may well be a matter of the strangeness of human sin that we live part of our holy lives in things as mundane as budget conversations in anxious times, but I'm inclined to take "knittingboykit's" point a step farther and stand on the fact that those conversations are expressions of our mission and ministry, and not distractions from it. I'd also note that anxiety pushes us to resolve things by reduction, rather than nuance, and that this may not always be the "best" answer.

    The cry, "Won't somebody think of Jesus?" seems like a dangerous reduction of other voices, standing as it does on the assumption that others are not. What if we instead begin with the grace of imagining that all conversation partners ARE thinking of Jesus? Surely we'd learn something about how much greater than the vision of any single person this Word of God come among us can be.

    1. If we were having "conversations" that led to "holy common life" I'd be fine. But we have a dysfunctional need to throw down conflict upon conflict, often with no possible outcome other than win/lose, and we do so without adequately resolving any of them.

      TEC is monochrome - disproportionately white, aging/aged, affluent and big city. Our "conversations" have only accelerated that.

      "The cry, 'Won't somebody think of Jesus?' seems like a dangerous reduction of other voices, standing as it does on the assumption that others are not." OK, what in the world does this mean? Do you realize at all that TEC has developed an insider's vocabulary and group-think every bit as clubby and impenetrable as the "churchianese" of the evangelical subculture? By trying to think of Jesus, which we PROMISE to do in our Baptismal Covenant, we "assume that others are not?"

      I'm sorry, I can't go on with my comment. I've read what you said again and I am more convinced than when I began that the TEC represented by GC and comments like yours has lost any coherent connection to Christ and his work.

  4. if the mission of The Church is not the mission of Jesus it can hardly call itself his Body. The mission of Jesus, however, did not consist of going around talking about himself. It consisted, says Mark, of announcing the impending arrival of the Kingdom of God. (lit., God's imperial rule" --NOT pie in the sky but a new world characterized by truth-telling, justice-doing, shalom, and love, IN that order, for each needs the other first.
    Understandimgs of this that treat the Kingdom of God as either a place somewhere else, later, or an interior reality in the heart would have been incomprehensible to the first Christians, according to Corssan and NT Wright (and when those two agree, you got something!)

  5. Benedict and Juan, thanks for your comments. Benedict, I am not trying to suggest that Jesus can't work through bureaucratic or legislative structures - if he can rise from the dead, he can do that. And I am certainly not suggesting that everyone is not trying to follow Jesus faithfully. When I said that "we have lost trust in each other as faithful servants of Jesus," I mean that I think a lot of our conflict happens when we FORGET to allow for good intentions and faithful service on the part of all involved. But to me, it is hard to hear the Spirit's voice in a highly structured, adversarial legislative context like General Convention, or in a hierarchical staff structure, and I certainly don't think the current proposed budget allows much room for evangelism or Christian formation. I think the Spirit's voice is much better heard in prayer and discernment, across the whole church, and I hope we will allow room for that to happen. I would caution against making long-term restructuring decisions on the basis of short-term budget shortfalls, before that listening has occurred.

    Juan, I did mention proclaiming the kingdom of God as our mission (3rd paragraph), so I think we are in agreement there. I do think that proclaiming Jesus and his ongoing life and ministry is part of our proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

    Thanks for engaging in the discussion.

  6. As somone whose career has involved a great deal of avoiding the standard flight-or-fight response, but rather engagement, I believe Susan has a point. People too often feel that someone has to win and someone has to lose, or we have to run like scared chickens. But there is a third path--to lean into conflict, to carefully hear what the other side has to say, and to work towards a situation in which all parties win. Not always doable, but it is amazing how often it's possible when folks take a deep breath and engage.

  7. Thanks, Saint A. I have been told that I'm too idealistic, but I do hope we can find a space in which we can all listen to each other, prayerfully and discerningly trying to find the voice of the Spirit in each other's voices.