A Gospel of Justice and Obedience
Having grown up in liberal mainline churches as a young person in Canada and Scotland, I have watched communities that I cared deeply about shrink and almost vanish. By the time we left Scotland my daughter found herself almost alone in Sunday school in our local parish. My wife’s grandmother, at age 90 and a lifelong stalwart of the Church of Scotland, witnessed the closure of her church and its amalgamation with another congregation.
The stories of decline and disappearance are all too familiar and can be told by anyone involved in churches on either side of the Atlantic. The problems for the mainline churches brought on by such evident decline are numerous, including the loss of financial stability and the inability to attract men and women of prophetic stature to lead from the pulpit. Denominations are further damaged by the departure of usually large and wealthy congregations for more conservative associations.
In Search of Guidance
How do we explain the church’s loss of position in our society? Facing social, economic, and security problems on a bewildering scale in an age of extreme turbulence, people are not turning to the mainline churches for guidance. Why should they? What do the churches have to offer that cannot be provided by organizations in the wider secular world?
These questions demand attention. One answer is indicated in John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 56:7: “Yet it must here be observed that we are called into the Church, in order that we may call on God; for in vain do they boast who neglect prayer and true calling upon God, and yet hold a place in the Church. In whatever place we are, therefore, let us not neglect this exercise of faith; for we learn from the words of Isaiah, as it is also said, (Ps 50:14) that this is the highest and most excellent sacrifice which God demands; so that the holiness of the temple consists in prayers being there offered continually.”
Our churches need to be houses of prayer and prophetic preaching. As Nora Tisdale has declared: “prophetic preaching will always be done by a remnant, by people who find the courage and audacity to speak to the status quo.”1 She further argues that “today’s political climate makes prophetic preaching harder to pull off. … A national partisan mood makes people in the pews wary of sermons that smack of a polemical agenda.”2 The more difficult the climate, the more we need those prophetic voices.
Beyond the Comfort Zone
I would argue that one element of that prophetic voice is a more expansive theology that takes the mainline churches into areas outside their comfort zone. Whereas issue-driven preaching is common enough, the churches have too little to say about the redemptive nature of Christ and salvation. Such parts of the theological spectrum have been too readily abandoned to “evangelicals” (however that term is defined) or “conservatives.” Inclusivity and diversity are essential parts of our contemporary communities, but we must give further thought to how they relate to a vigorous theology of proclamation, salvation, and the mission of the church. When we stop seeing traditional theological aspects of the faith as inimical to social justice, then powerful voices will more clearly be heard, the holiness of our temples will be seen, and a prophetic distance from the values of the world will be evident.
It’s brutally tough, and risks criticism and hostility, but it is our mission. The mainline churches should offer social outreach in the world, seeking to transform creation according to a saving faith. Rooted in the whole gospel message, our churches should give people a reason to believe that God loves and forgives but also demands obedience and commitment. We must declare a theology that leads us to pray and worship and go forth to see the face of Christ in all.
A Hard Conversation
Essential to renewal is a willingness to sit down with groups and individuals with whom there is considerable disagreement on a range of hot-button issues. At YDS in May, we attempted such a gathering. Many of the 25 participants – faculty, students, visitors from across the country – were skeptical that such conversations were even possible. No one group won over the others, but there was a prevailing civility, a spirit of generous listening. On pastoral issues, for example, there was remarkable common ground. On issues of ordination and sexual equality, there was less so. Nevertheless, for two and a half days we talked.
Above all we discussed church growth and the problems facing congregations across the spectrum. In liberal and conservative churches there is considerable infatuation with secular models of development and progress. Many within the evangelical movement believe the more people in seats the better, and business methods are employed to maximize numbers. Further, the forms of worship and community are developed to maximize attendance, leading to the abandonment of more serious biblical studies, lectures, or youth group activities as not “fun enough.” At our meeting several spoke of the risks inherent in the culture of church planting, and the question of how deep run the conversions of those brought in the door.
For both mainline and evangelical participants, a dominant theme was the megachurch in American religious culture. Many asked whether such churches were the inevitable result of the logic of the desire for growth. Examples were discussed, and it soon became evident that although these churches employed methods drawn from the world of marketing they clearly filled a need that many of our churches are failing to meet. The relationship between the church and the secular world is deeply complicated by our desire to understand human behavior and our unwillingness to sell the gospel as a commodity. This dilemma is at the heart of the hard conversation awaiting us.
Tension and Truth
The Reformation taught us about the complex relationship between the sacred and the secular, and the tension between the two is evident in our discussion of church growth. To what extent should we draw upon the wisdom of the world to serve the gospel? At what point is there compromise of the message? Yet to live in naïve isolation risks a slow and painful demise. The Great Commission sends us forth and the Word of God must be proclaimed loudly, and God’s justice is demanded in the world. Yet the Commission is not about numbers. That is to put the cart before the horse. It’s about faithfulness.
It is easy to be dispirited about the state of the church and its seemingly endless divisions. We always need to remind ourselves that when we look to our brothers and sisters in the Majority World that we face a very Western problem. Nevertheless, it is time for us to be bold in declaring our convictions and generous in our conversations with those with whom we do not agree. That is growth. That is progress. As Paul says, “Now is the day of salvation.”
Bruce Gordon is Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at YDS. From 1994-2008, he taught at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, where he earned a Ph.D. In 2012 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich. His books include Calvin (Yale, 2009) and The Swiss Reformation (Manchester, 2002). A new book, on Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, will appear with Princeton University Press in 2016.