I had a long (and good) conversation with the new deacon, Dave, at St. Luke’s in Coeur d’Alene today. (For my evangelical readers, in the Episcopal Church, a deacon is not an elder or anything like that but a lower order of clergy. Most, including Dave, are on the path to priesthood.) There is one thing in particular Dave said that I think fits with the social justice theme of this blog, and is worth exploring in slightly more depth here:
"God says to the church, if you don’t change, I’m going to go do my work elsewhere!"
This statement doesn’t mean that the church needs to abandon its roots or change its message. What it means is that the church must take that message, rooted in Scripture, and make it relevant to the modern world. God wants to have a personal relationship with all His children, and He will seek out those relationships in whatever venues are relevant to people’s lives. The more people the church can stay relevant to, the more people who will commune with God behinds its doors. If the church does not touch people where it matters, they will stop coming, and God will do His work wherever they do go. For example, Dave said that Curves, something I only knew as a women’s gym, not only offers self-esteem classes, but is now involved in social justice causes. Shaping the individual life and lifting the wider world – that’s God at work. And while it’s good that He is using Curves for His work, isn’t it sad that more and more people have to look beyond the church to see that work? In order to remain a leader, the church must stay relevant.
This includes visiting the hospital and spreading the Good News, but it also includes feeding the hungry, treating epidemics, educating all the world’s children, protecting our environment, reforming our prisons, and standing up to governments and corporations that abuse the weak. This work will be done, but if the church ceases to be an effective tool in getting it done, God will find other tools. If the church will not also reach out to those in need, He will turn to the Clinton Global Initiative for leadership. If the church is irrelevant to the daily urban life of a city high school teacher, He will guide her to yoga or a book club. From the Hamptons to Ghana, the church cannot let this happen. If God’s work is not done first and foremost by people of faith, the world will not think to link the results with Him. It is one thing when Curves or the usual activists get things done, but it is another story when the messenger wears a collar.
Yes, the church does need to teach its members about Scripture and grace, but also about action. The church needs to show its congregants what they can do for themselves, for each other, for God, and for God’s kingdom. None of this can be done if the powers that be ignore the world we live in. The church must never change its message, but it must change the way it keeps that message relevant.
I am excited about The Episcopal Church’s focus on the Millennium Development Goals, and I admire the use of PowerPoint and other technologies in evangelical churches, but we are not wholly focused on such growth. As long as we get bogged down in the finer points of internal theology; as long as the outside world has reason to think Christians only care about abortion, gay marriage, and eternal damnation; as long as we Episcopalians have Bishops who refuse to even discuss the Gospels or the modern world with those who don’t share their way of interpreting Paul’s teachings on sex, our effectiveness will be limited, and God will find somewhere else to lead. These differences cannot get in the way of unity, and these arguments, while important, cannot become central themes. Let’s try doing God’s work, instead.
(Picture credit 1, 2. That second photo is Dr. Paul Farmer at a Partners in Health clinic in Haiti.)