I am thankful when I read an author who refuses to let the church die without a fight.
(Of course, I understand that this statement is ridiculous. The church is not ours to preserve, and despite our best efforts, we can not kill it. It is God’s to sustain, and despite our feebleness and sin, God uses us to witness to Jesus Christ. At best, we are stewards of the gospel.)
A few weeks ago I picked up a book by Bishop Robert Schnase, a man who wants to see the church have a significant presence in the world. This book has been very popular, as best I can tell. Curious, I read it. It is called The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.
Schnase recognizes that The United Methodist Church is dying. He recognizes that Methodists have failed in many cases to pass along their faith to their children. But he does not believe that the church is doomed. He believes things can turn around.
According to Schnase, there are five essential practices congregations can undertake to bring about a fruitful, more hopeful future:
- Radical Hospitality
- Passionate Worship
- Intentional Faith Development
- Risk-Taking Ministry and Service
- Extravagant Generosity
Schnase’s book is full of case studies. He tells stories. And he explains why congregations must undertake these practices if they hope to bless their communities. He stresses the importance of the church, and illustrates how small acts can make a great deal of difference in the lives of real people.
I believe that each of Schnase’s five practices are important. I think churches should be hospitable and generous. I believe that churches should undertake service and engage in discipleship. And I think they should worship.
All of this is common sense, or it should be.
And because these ideas are so simple, and many of his case studies so clear, I wish I could say that I loved this book. I didn’t.
As I said above, I love it when I find an author who is willing to cast a vision of hope in the midst of despair. I love it when I find someone who is willing to proclaim a better tomorrow for the church. In this regard the outline is great. But content is a different matter. As I read this book I found I disagree with how Schnase argued his case in significant ways. I would contend that Schnase focuses too heavily on form over content. It is one thing to move churches toward doing the right things. It is quite another thing to change the character of the body of Christ.
I’ll provide a couple of examples.
First, Schnase assumes, “What do people need from the church?” is a good question. This question is adapted from Adam Hamilton’s Leading Beyond the Walls (Hamilton’s question is “Why do people need the church?” The “from” makes a big difference.). Schnase asserts that “a relationship with God through Jesus Christ” is far too abstract for most people, and that the phrase itself carries potential baggage due to “negative experiences of intrusive and aggressive evangelistic styles.” Despite this, the question “What do people need?” remains pervasive and demands an answer. Schnase makes a number of attempts. He lists off the possibilities: people need to know God loves them, they are not alone, they have purpose, and that they have value. And, of course, all of these things are true. However, purpose, belonging, and self-worth can be found in places other than the church. Many people believe God, if such a being exists, would most certainly love them.
I do not disagree with Schnase regarding the church’s ability to meet certain needs of those in their community. But the question is wrongly put. By setting up the conversation this way, the church becomes a purveyor of religious goods and services, and the people with whom the church is in relationship are defined as religious consumers. There is a need, and we are to meet the need. We are to determine the market, and formulate our sales plan accordingly.
I believe the proper question is not “What do people need from the church,” but “What is the church?” Are we the people who witness to the resurrection, or are we venders of spirituality? Fruitful congregations do not need to first point their compass towards the needs of their communities, that will come later. They need to first point toward Jesus and witness to the gospel of and about him. As Stanley Hauerwas has observed, the first task of the church is to be the church. The church is the community that witnesses to the cross. This is a matter of being, not of doing. We must be before we do. This requires that we undertake the task of theological reflection and allow our practices to flow forth from the substance of our character. Then we will do in accord with who we understand ourselves to be. As the people entrusted with the gospel of God, and as those who have been called to a common table by Jesus Christ, we have no choice but to be hospitable to the stranger, servant to the hungry and thirsty, and caring toward those who are poor.
Second, throughout his book Schnase seems to assume that what people want is the church, and that a source of despair for laymen and clergy is that there are people in their cities and towns who do not have a relationship with a faith community. Schnase assumes that the worship event at the church building is our best hope for reaching these people and integrating them into the life of the Christian community.
In the current climate, I disagree. We must go to people in our communities. They will not come to us. Will we go because we are broken for people who do not have a relationship with the church, or because people do not have a relationship with the Living God revealed in Jesus Christ? There are so many other ways that people can connect with the church outside of a primary worship experience. And besides, many people are evaluating Christianity not on the quality of our programs or the state of our discourse, but by the content of our lives. Many will not assume that Christianity is truthful until it takes on flesh on more neutral turf, not in “church” space. Skeptics assume that Christians will put on a good face during their designated “events,” but what about in the home, workplace, or community?
To further drive this point home, Schnase’s argument assumes that churches will continue to have some place at the center of our communities, and that people will come to us if we have appealing facilities and good programs. We must be good marketers, “[communicating] to the public through mailings, brochures, posters, banners, newspapers, websites, and signs…[that are] ‘visitor friendly,’ free of insider jargon and acronyms.”
If anyone is familiar with the seeker sensitive model of the last 30 years, you will immediately recognize a number of familiar themes. Unfortunately, facilities, good programming, and savvy marketing have yielded a questionable amount of “fruitfulness.” In some communities it has produced significant “crowds,” which, I guess, is a step. Jesus also spoke to crowds. However, I don’t think I need to reproduce data from numerous studies which have revealed that more and more people who claim the name “Christian” do not know nor live in accordance with Christian convictions.
And, finally, I’ll mention a sentence I found incredibly embarrassing. On page 122, Schnase felt compelled to write, “In churches that practice Extravagant Generosity, the pastor tithes.”
Lord, help us. The fact that this needs to be stated (explicitly and desperately) is a testimony against us. When even our pastoral leaders fail to be generous, is it any wonder that we have been in decline?
This book might be a helpful conversation starter for churches seeking a new direction. I will not deny that. It is written with simplicity of style and warmth of tone, and provides easy parameters for people to evaluate their church’s current practices with categories that can, in some sense, be measured. But on the whole, I think we can do better. I think that our tradition is rich enough that our answers can rely much more on substance than on form. We can trust that our theology will lead us to creative answers on how we might serve as witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world. We can begin first with the narrative of Scripture and then the content of our doctrine, and allow people to creatively imagine how we might live out the story found in the Bible and in the best of the Christian tradition. It might be true that we can act our way into new types of understanding, but our practices should never be divorced from the deep theological truths upon which they are founded. These truths, such as “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord,” are not hopeless abstractions too difficult for most to grasp. It is the stuff my faith is founded on. And, by grace, others will come to confess Christian truth and act in accordance with the teachings of our faith.
And to make one more statement not explicitly related, I pray that churches seeking to be fruitful would be broken for those in their community that do not know Jesus. As we go with the good news to these potential friends, we may find that the Jesus who stands with the church can be found at work outside the church, on the margins, waiting to surprise us.
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