aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,
aefenglommung
aefenglommung

My take on the task of the Church in our day

Back when I was finishing up seminary -- late 1970s, that is -- I came up with a profound thought (I have one at least every decade or so). I was reading a lot of Church history at the time, and my special treat was to read about the evangelization of Northern Europe during the so-called "Dark Ages" -- an especially neglected era in our studies.

The second half millennium of the Church was a time of great success for Christianity, though one might not have predicted it at the beginning of that period. Christianity had gotten very comfortable in the Roman Empire (East and West). The Faith had adapted itself to cultural norms that had once been alien to it and succeeded greatly. Now, however, all the assumptions of the Empire, and of the milieu in which the Church was born, were coming under attack. In the 400s, the Western Empire lost over half its territory to new peoples crowding in, pagan peoples with different social and legal systems. Two centuries later, Islam arose to begin challenging Christianity for dominance over the Mediterranean world.

The achievement of that time -- particularly in the West -- was the transmission of the Christian faith to a new civilization. The best of the old Imperial modes and mores were retained to a degree, but the Church successfully interpenetrated and won over whole new peoples. The evangelization of the English is the case study of the period and shows the missionary Church at its finest. The period of expansion culminated in the democratically decided mass conversion of Iceland c. AD 1000.

Tolkien pointed out that the fusion of Mediterranean and Germanic produced the Medieval (Beowulf is the forerunner of the knight errant, in a way). But though Christianity found new forms to express itself in, there was no doubt that it was the ancient Faith that was successfully translated into the languages and thought of the Germanic peoples who had dismembered the old Empire. Not only that, but the Church succeeded in evangelizing peoples who had never before been part of the Roman system.

As I was preparing to graduate, I thought that our time was similar to that time, that AD 1980 was comparable to, say, AD 500 or so. The old civilization that I thought I was going to inherit, the world of my parents and their assumptions, was rapidly passing away. Rising adults and youth no longer understood what made the people of that age tick. It was time for the Church to translate its message into a new form. But it had to be the one, the true, the authentic, message, or it would all be lost. That was what the leadership of the Church at all levels had done back in the early Middle Ages; that was what was so amazing and inspiring. So I have been, all throughout my career, an explainer as much as a preacher. I have desired above all to teach the ancient Faith in words and modes understandable to the barbarians I live among (N.B., for someone like me, "barbarian" is not a derogatory term, merely a descriptive one). And I have had some modest success.

But the Church at large -- especially, The United Methodist Church -- has not seen the task in the same way. Many of our leaders don't believe that it is possible to actually translate ideas from one culture to another; each culture has its own "truth," they think, which makes the attempt impossible, undesirable, or both. Many of our leaders, too, no longer believe the ancient Faith, or fancy that they believe what is still "true" at the core of it while disbelieving the actual, enumerated statements of belief in the Creeds. Others think that the ancient Faith is a fine thing, but they have been dazzled by the new cultural forms in evidence, and that's all they care about. They want to create a Church that reflects the new culture, and think that the content of the Faith taught in it a matter of secondary importance. Until recently, too, the evangelicals I went to seminary among thought that their sub-culture, born and developed between c. 1850 and 1950, had fully captured the ancient Faith and that the Faith could hardly be communicated without their way of expressing it.

I weep over all this. We have, as a Church, just plain missed the boat. We have majored in the minors. We have hared off after second-bests. We have left the treasure we found lying in the field where we discovered it and gone off to bid on other properties. This, this, is the tragedy of our times. All our talk of structure and style and new forms of social networking and the rest of it is just a means of talking about stuff that doesn't really matter while the stuff that really does is ignored. If you don't get the wall plumb, it doesn't matter what the wall is made of, or how you decorate it. Because it won't stand for long.
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