Thursday, July 24, 2008

The End of Evangelism?

Elizabeth Eaton is the Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod (ELCA).  Egg readers may recall that she had the unfortunate duty of making public statements when one of the pastors in her jurisdiction was arrested for child molestation.  Recently, she also had the duty -- which we hope was more pleasant -- of preaching at the Eucharist which concluded a Women of the ELCA convention.

The church's press release on the subject gives an account of her sermon which, while fragmentary and difficult to follow, has nonetheless piqued our interest.  (Click above to read it).  In many of the extracted quotations, Bp Eaton appears to be chastising congregations for familiar faults ("we have ... bought into a culture of scarcity and fear") while exhorting them to pursue familiar goals (support global mission).  There is nothing wrong with this; we have often  chastised and encouraged in the same vein.

But in places, the press release seems to describe a more provocative sermon.  

Out of context, it is hard to know just what she meant when she said, "Folks are not going to come into our churches. They only did that in the '50s for a few short years.  Everyone who is in is already there. So, don't expect by opening the doors they're going to come walking in."  After all, it is an observable fact that people do walk into churches, and that they can only do so when the doors are open.  But she is quite correct to observe that they don't do so in such large numbers, and upon this observation might potentially hang a very remarkable sermon, especially by a bishop.  

After all, to venture far in this direction is to contradict much of the contemporary talk about passively "welcoming the stranger" as a means of evangelism.   It is, indeed, even to cast some doubt upon the likelihood of re-evangelizing the secularized West, or our de-churched neighborhoods, anytime soon.  As she also said, "We are surrounded by a culture that does not think that the church is marvelous. It thinks in a lot of cases that the church is inconsequential."  It is to portray the Church as a permanent minority, one which ought not to fritter away its energy chasing a will o' the wisp called Growth.

If this was her point, or even a significant part of it, then we are very interested in what Bp Eaton actually said.  One of the pressing debates in our own synod, and one which stirred some emotions during a recent assembly, is the question of why our churches, especially those in the city proper, have declined so dramatically over the past three-quarters of a century, and what we should do about that fact.  At risk of oversimplifying an extremely complex and emotionally-laden issue, there seem to be two camps.  One believes, or at least claims publicly, that the decline results from failures of vision and imagination, especially on the part of the clergy, and that sufficiently persuasive recruitment techniques can reverse the trend.  The other camp, which is far smaller or least far more timid about speaking up, argues that the decline results primarily from demographic and cultural changes, over which local churches have little control, and that our task now is to assess the ways in which we can serve God from the margins of our new society.

Does Bp Eaton see wisdom in the second position?  And if so, what is her vision for the Church as a minority report, a pinch of salt which adds savor to a much larger stew?   It is difficult to tell from the jumbled hash of a press release.  The ELCA has also posted an excerpt from her sermon, which is also too brief to tell us much.  (But listen here).  It includes a reference, with attribution, to Monty Python (the parrot isn't dead; he's pining for the fjords), and another reference, not attributed, to the conservative cultural critic Christopher Lasch, and his assertion that "nostalgia [an illness affecting most Christians and all Lutherans] is an abdication of memory."  

All in all, while it is impossible for the Egg to know quite what Bp Eaton said or meant to say, we have here hints of a sermon which does not merely challenge listeners, but which may possibly challenge them to think new thoughts.

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