“I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” ~ Philemon 9
Bishop Hunter’s big success at yesterday’s afternoon lecture at St. Steven’s Church in Sewickley was an act of informed synthesis. Ostensibly, we were there to hear about “Church Planting for the Sake of Others,” but the talk in no way developed that idea as a concise thesis. Don’t misunderstand, Bishop Hunter did address issues of mission and even offer some new ways to think about it, but he delivered information to us scattershot, a shotgun spread of issues ranging from how we tell the Christian story to engaging in an informed way with our culture. Nebulously, however, a coherent big picture for the future of Anglican ecclesiology and mission eventually came into view.
He began with a splash of cold water: evangelical Christianity is on the decline. According to sociologists of religion, he says, we’re bleeding numbers. He chalked this up to the fading currency of dogmatic truth in the post-Christian West, which I’m sure is insightful, but I was wondering about when these sociologists were taking these numbers. If in the aughts (00’s), his interpretation might have overlooked the problem of George W. Bush, who did no small amount of damage to evangelicalism’s reputation.^ He also refused to criticize some “Moral Majority” leaders like Robertson and Falwell—I appreciated his respect for them as people trying to uphold righteousness in a failing culture, but thought he remained too shy of acknowledging great public sins like their 700 Club conversation on September 12, 2001 blaming 9/11 on lesbians and the ACLU.*
The bishop described a familiar cultural situation: most Americans don’t consider Christianity to be our default religion, but rather one of many religious options. Pluralism and tolerance rule public discourse on God. He brought up the New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.) and told us how they’ve changed the tone of atheism from mere dismissal of religion to an outright denunciation of it as morally bankrupt and necessarily damaging. He countered this with statistics about historically steady church attendance and atheism’s lack of popular appeal.
What’s the zeitgeist then? Is it surprising to say that a mushy, post-confidence pluralism prevails, neither outright denying nor outright affirming the existence and/or relevance of God to human life? I’m not sure he spelled it out just this way, but it represents the sum total of his statements on the subject and is, I think, perceptive and relevant. Think of last year’s blockbuster Avatar and the way it’s pantheist-buddhist mystical interconnectedness and call for us to love and defend the weak and the different enriched its otherwise Dances With Wolves in Space plot. I loved the movie, but recognized it as an epic drama of the Obama age: “We’re sorry about Iraq; everything’s connected; there’s something that gives us hope; we’ll use the best technology to show you.”
So what? Bishop Hunter contended that we must recognize this situation as de facto and respond appropriately. “There’s no way into mission apart from reality,” he said. And mission “only happens by understanding and facing reality.” Paul’s Areopagus speech in Acts 17 serves as the model—we make a bridge from their reality (“unknown god”) to ours (“the God who made the world and everything in it”). We don’t preach the gospel by relativizing our story: “It was the particularity of Jehovah that liberated human beings.” Our hardest job, as he puts it, is “lovingly contending” for the uniqueness of Christ. It’s anathema to our culture, yet we can’t shout them into agreement with us. There has to be another way.
“How do we,” he asked, “take the particularity of Jehovah and be his people in this time and place?” In his view, we can neither rely on the strength of dollars or implicit social capital** and must rethink church and mission in terms of loving our neighbor as ourself.*** And that’s where the idea of “Congregations for the Sake of Others” creeps in, as it commends Christians to love people into Christ rather than seeing them as numbers to be secured as the spoils of evangelistic combat. Rather than think of church as one hour a week on Sunday, let’s think of it as all week long, where ambassadors for Christ are living gospel lives among the lost and then bringing them into community and worship on the basis of love.
He commended, almost apologizing for fear of offending Anglican tradition, an instrumentalist view of the church suggesting that Sunday worship is not an end in itself. I guess that’s a sacramental theology debate to be had another day. But he insisted that nothing ought to get in the way of gospel proclamation and gospel living, and that traditions which do need to be reconsidered in light of this imperative. He mediated, however, saying that “Worship was never meant to be in opposition to mission.” There are ways, he said hopefully, of bringing together a robust and historical sacramental theology with an urgent and nimble evangelical mission. He did emphasize that we need a leadership culture that celebrates risk and can deal with failure, the opposite of which is a “paralyzing conservatism.”
Bishop Hunter proposed many things that I, with a strong background in free church evangelicalism, have long been familiar with. In essence, that we need to recapture a biblically Christ-like model of being and doing Church because resting on an institutional legacy does not foster the God-dependence essential to incarnational ministry. His best advice: “Find a reckless abandon to the person and work of the Holy Spirit.” Sounds like the bread and butter of my childhood charismatic evangelicalism—-no surprise since Hunter spent many years with Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Church. His great success yesterday was not in presenting something new, but rather in presenting something ancient: the apostolic witness of Christ’s life and Paul’s commands (esp. Romans 12:1-2) as the ultimate models for church life. Hunter practices what he preaches, as his talk took the particularity of YHWH known in the life and times of Christ and the early church and demonstrated how it speaks to our contemporary American cultural landscape.
*Such jeremiads have tempting parallels in scripture, but they betray a total ignorance of America’s toxic foreign policy towards Muslim countries since World War I.
**Here "social capital" implies a broad cultural assumption that the church and/or bible hold recognizable moral authority.
***For a non-professional historical take on this idea, see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). For a biblical take on this idea, see the bible, especially Matthew 22:37-40.
^Addition, 11/13/2010: I should add to this the problematic fallout from 9/11 in general and the cultural polarization which made evangelicalism seem a Christian doppelganger of violent Islamic fundamentalism.