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Being Other Worldly or Being Christian

The Evangelical Ecologist has an excellent post titled Closing Credibility Gaps. I think that I’m in a good position to underline his post, as a member of a congregation of the United Methodist Church, one of those declining mainline denominations. Just so the error seekers know that I saw it, I will quibble slightly over the use of an example statement from the Anglican Church (UK) followed by an example of decline from the Episcopal Church (USA). The Anglican church does indeed have its share of problems, but it is a beast of a different color from the Episcopal Church. They fall under a larger umbrella together in the Anglican communion, but that doesn’t make them of the same denomination. Nonetheless, I don’t think that vitiates the overall point of the essay.

I commented tangentially on this issue, though not in direct relation to ecology, in my post Christian Essentials: Incarnation at the Center:

Christianity can’t retreat into being simply a system of ethics. It involves ethics, but it also involves redemption and empowering, the means of creating ethical people by redemption, but even more the means of bringing people into touch with God.

I could rephrase that as Christianity cannot retreat into being a system of politics, or of science, or of any similar thing. Whatever positions we may take as Christians on anything at all, it has to start with being Christian. Why is this so?

Christianity takes a good deal of work. Even if you drop most of the doctrines, take away the servant leadership and the discipleship, and make it essentially a social club, you still have to maintain the club house (the church), pay the leadership and staff, and people have to go to meetings. Now if the church is merely a social club, why wouldn’t one find a cheaper way to accomplish those goals. I guarantee you that church architecture is not the most economical way out there to construct a clubhouse.

Now if you’ve been a member of the club all your life, you may feel inclined to remain a member. But what about new people? If your selling points on your church are entirely made up of political and social goals, why should somebody join the church? What you’re telling the potential new member, or the person you are trying to keep as a member is this: “Come join our social and political movement. We cost more, we’re less effective, but we have the traditional label ‘Christian’.”

I believe this has been the major failing of Christian liberals. We (I’m called liberal often enough to use an inclusive “we”) have kept all the social goals, but in order not to put anyone off, we have been afraid to pursue any sort of spiritual or doctrinal standard whatsoever. I commented in an earlier post that when I first decided to join a United Methodist congregation I checked out two different ones. In the first one the pastor kind of chuckled at my interest in the church’s doctrinal positions and said, “We don’t really worry that much about what you believe. If you enjoy fellowship with us, you can join.” The other pastor asked me about my experience and relationship with Jesus. I joined the second.

Being inclusive can eliminate the barriers to people entering the congregation but at the same time it can remove all identity from that congregation and thus any positive reason to join.

The Evangelical Ecologist is absolutely right. We can talk and talk about this as churches, but why is it that anyone should listen? Are our councils of clergy more knowledgeable about climate change than various scientific groups? Do we have some extraordinary expertise in administration so as to help implement all this legislation? If you’ve participated in church councils, I suspect you already know we have neither of those elements. What the church could have, and should have is the moral impetus to challenge and empower people to implement change. But that moral impetus can only come from conviction that is part of an active spiritual life.

Though I believe there are particular doctrines that are better than others, I don’t think the primary problem of mainline denominations is that we believe the wrong things on specific doctrines. It is that we don’t, as denominations, believe anything at all enough to care about it. As Christians I believe the incarnation should be at the center of all we do, but that doctrine has to be a living thing in our lives so that we cannot imagine being without it. It has implications in our lives (“Christ in you, the hope of glory” – Colossians 1:27), and those implications must be important.

If we don’t have Christ at the center, then we are simply another social service organization, with a bunch of excess religious baggage to make us less efficient. Why should people get on board?

The place of Christianity in this kind of social activity is redemptive, empowering, life-giving, and motivating, a body filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit, ready to act. That must be the case for Christianity to have a great impact. Personally I haven’t tried to take a position on global warming as such, because I don’t know the science well enough to defend any position I take. But I do know that there are good things that I can do, things that make sense whether global warming or global cooling is correct.

In doing those things, “the love of Christ urges me on” because I am called to live a life empowered by the incarnation, guided by the two laws, one of which is love for my neighbor.

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  1. The Episcopal Church of the USA seems to be trying as hard as it can to get itself pushed out from under the Anglican Communion umbrella.

    And what neither the Evangelical Ecologist nor you notes is what really happened in their the example of an Episcopal church “in decline”: this once thriving church “St. Paul’s had been refusing to pay its annual assessment since 1994, in protest of diocesan support in 1993 of the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions”, and so in 1997 “Hiles [the Rector] was inhibited and deposed by Bishop Shaw. With ninety-eight per cent of the former congregation of St. Paul’s in tow, he left. For several years they met in a Seventh-day Adventist church. Subsequently, they built an even larger facility – St. Paul’s Anglican Church – at a new location. Today they are a thriving congregation.” So, not a church in decline, but a thriving church evicted by a denomination with a death wish.

    Meanwhile the Church of England has in general reversed its long term decline; there are still formerly thriving churches struggling on with tiny congregations, but there are also many churches like mine which are alive and growing.

    But in general this is a good article.

    On global warming, you might like to check out my articles on page 3 of the latest issue (issue 16) of Baddow Life newspaper.

  2. Peter,

    Today they are a thriving congregation.” So, not a church in decline, but a thriving church evicted by a denomination with a death wish.

    Oops! Missed that. There are plenty of congregations in decline for the reasons the evangelical ecologist pointed out. He selected a bad example.

    I’ll check out your article on global warming. I just get involved with so many topics I seem unable to keep up with that one. Nonetheless I believe in reducing carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels in general, so I walk the walk, even though I don’t talk the talk! 🙂

  3. Thanks for noticing the article, and good call on the US vs UK Anglicans. You’re right, of course.

    FWIW, agree that there are handfuls of Episcopal churches that are thriving, like the one my friend Pat runs in South Carolina (in the article). The AMEs are growing like gangbusters too. They are leading many environmental efforts in Africa, by the way. I’ve seen second hand Pat’s suffering at the hands of the overburden of Episcopal bureaucracy (that Peter mentioned) and liberalism in general. Also, I didn’t use them as examples, but I know two other Episcopal bishops personally that have left the Anglicans, one to the Catholic Church and another has become an evangelical independent. Same reason.

    Again, not picking on Anglicans particularly, but thanks for being willing to see that the point – whether I made it well or not – was that a denomination will only be as credible in outreach as their ability to manage their inreach, and their Upreach.

    Grace and peace,

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