This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Recovering the Means of Grace to Renew the Church.

The Means of Grace.  I.

In the church, change that does not well up from below is going to be pointless.  More than anything else we need to start by having our churches become places of healing, transformation, joy, hope, and compassion.  They need to be places where people meet the living Jesus Christ and learn to follow him.
This will be done through better attention to the traditional “means of grace,” which are: (1) the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures that attest to him, (2) worshiping and celebrating the sacraments together with integrity, knowledge, and conviction, and (3) deepening of our prayer lives both corporately and individually, including giving new attention to meditative practices like Centering Prayer.    
It will be objected that I said nothing about mission or service.  That is because the means of grace have priority in the formation of disciples and provide a necessary foundation for the mission of the church.  Before it can be missional, the church has to be contemplative.  Before it can go out and make disciples (the Great Commission in Matthew 28) or serve the needy (Matthew 25), Christians need to be aware of who and whose they are.  Before we can be active witnesses in the world the church and disciples have to be in relationship with the One who sends us.
In other words, we have to go inward before we can go outward, but the going inward is for the sake of going outward.  Faithful advocacy has to be based on the invocation of the Spirit.  
One danger right now is that the Presbyterian Church, in its new, more explicitly “progressive” form (having lost much of its conservative-evangelical wing), will advance with a shallow social activism that has barely any root in an experience of God’s saving Presence.  This leads on the one hand to burn-out, and on the other to a reductionistic faith in political power and a toxic identification with a particular party or faction.  Evangelicalism is now completely discredited by its drinking of the Republican — and now Trumpian — Kool-Aid.  This must not be allowed to happen to a progressive church.  Focusing anew on Jesus Christ and the means of grace will prevent this.  An active, progressive, missional church needs a strong foundation in the Word, sacraments, and prayer.  The social justice that is inherent and essential to the gospel has to be energized and nourished by a profound and rich spirituality.    

  1. The Word.  In too many churches, Bible study is shallow, weak, compromised, and so flavored with evangelical literalism and sentimentality as to spawn in congregations a reactionary knot of resistance to change… which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what the Bible is about.  We need to promote and even mandate Bible study resources that deal with context and present the Bible as the revolutionary and transformative document it is.  Presbyterians understand Scripture in and through Jesus Christ and his ministry, which is about compassion, forgiveness, inclusion, equality, and healing.  We need to require elders to have a minimum of Bible knowledge from this perspective.  
  2. Sacraments.  In too many churches worship is geared towards what the current attendees want, like, and are used to, rather than towards God.  Instead of plugging into the Christian tradition in worship, with attention on the sacraments that incorporate disciples into the life of Jesus Christ, we have worship more reflective of the 1950’s or a sentimental evangelicalism, permeated with bad, self-serving theology.  There is little of mystery, wonder, majesty, or depth in Presbyterian worship these days.  At its worst it is nationalistic, individualistic, antiseptic, irrelevant, overly informal, and spiritually empty.  And the Sacraments are habitually performed in a superficial and obligatory way.  What we need is worship that brings people into God’s Presence and forms them for responsible discipleship.  Our worship should have integrity, coherence, substance, direction, purpose, and meaning.          
  3. Prayer.  In too many churches prayer is completely disregarded, assumed, left to the minister, not taught, and limited to a vague “talking to God.”  It is chatty and self-centered.  We give God a “to-do” list of concerns that need to be addressed, but leave no time or energy for a conscious relinquishing of our ego-centricity and falling into an awareness of the eternal life Jesus promises.  It is “off the top of our heads” rather than delving into the depths of our souls.  The idea of listening to God is unfamiliar, and any kind of meditation practice is dismissed as un-Christian and even dangerous.  Presbyterian churches need to be places of prayer and mindfulness, where the Spirit becomes real in our lives.  We need to plug into the Christian contemplative tradition in intentional ways.  
If we want renewal in the church, we are going to have to start with the basics: bringing people into an awareness and experience of the living God, revealed in Jesus, by the Spirit.  That is what the means of grace are designed to do.

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