About every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. -Bishop Mark Dyer
Like it or not, change is happening within American Christianity. New ways of being church are springing up all around. Unlike the “worship wars” of previous decades, which pitted traditional and contemporary proponents against one another, the movement today is not so easy to classify. Terms such as “emergent,” “post-denominational,” “post-modern” and “progressive” attempt to describe the Christian scene and the movements going on within it. Each of these categorizations contains within itself a wide variety of interpretations of what it really means.
All of these are taking part in a “giant rummage sale,” as Bishop Dyer so brilliantly describes it. However, it’s clear that we’re not all in agreement about what to keep and what to give away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re in the process of getting ready for the rummage sale. If you’ve ever held a yard, garage or rummage sale, you know the work that goes into putting it together. The first thing you have to do is look over all of your stuff with a critical eye. As you look at each cherished possession, you ask: Do I want to keep this? Is it still useful? Does it still fit? Does it still work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the decision is easy; it’s a keeper. And if ‘no,’ to the sale it goes.
It gets a bit more complicated when you have an item that is tarnished, worn or outdated but you think there just might be some life left in it. You have to ask yourself if maybe, if it were cleaned up, restored or reworked, it could still be of value to you. A dusty old heirloom might just turn out to be a new treasure.
So it is in present-day Christianity. We’re looking with critical eyes at social issues, liturgical forms, biblical interpretations, theological teachings and the use of language. However not all churches necessarily deal with all of these, nor would they all agree. For example, a few years ago I attended, along with some members of my current congregation, a conference on the emerging church. First United considers itself to be a progressive congregation, committed to the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God. At our rummage sale, we had examined patriarchal language and decided that it had to go. So we were quite surprised by the lack of inclusive language used at the conference and by the fairly orthodox theology. We realized that we are all making different value judgment about our treasures. This is the reformation that is happening all around us. Old ideas are being reexamined, transformed or rejected; new ones are emerging.
Why is all this change happening now? Taking her cue from Bishop Dyer, the late Phyllis Tickle posited that we are in this current “giant rummage sale” simply because it’s time for one. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, she outlined the upheaval that has occurred every five hundred years since the time of Jesus. The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century. The 11th century saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 6th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages. All of these upheavals included both societal shifts and theological issues, just like we are experiencing now in the 21st century.
What I find most helpful about Tickle’s theory is that what we’re going through is normal. That means we can go about being creative and hopeful, rather than hidebound and anxious. This is good news because the church has been anxiety-driven for quite a while. Our outreach efforts have been fueled by the decline in membership in Christian congregations. Pundits have been writing ad nauseam about the reasons for this. The latest trend is expounding on the characteristics of the Millennial generation and how the church can reach out and reel them in. Some of these same “experts” also tell us how to appeal to those who are “spiritually independent” (a more positive way of saying “spiritual but not religious” or “none”) all around us.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 1990s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. The experts told us then that we had to adapt to the needs of Generation X and that if we would just follow their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. I learned an important lesson from those days: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of doing ministry in different settings. Another thing that I learned from the traditional/ contemporary worship wars is that for many the rummage sale included only musical styles, not language and theology.
For instance, the popular contemporary Christian song “Forever”includes the lyrics
Give thanks to the Lord
Our God and King
His love endures forever
For He is good, He is above all things
His love endures forever
This one hits the trifecta: exclusively male pronouns, hierarchical imagery for God (“Lord,” “King”) and an outdated view of a three-tiered universe (“above all things”).
Not that this is limited to recent contemporary music. One song, written in 1966, brought the interfaith/intrafaith issue home to me. One of my favorite songs used to be “I
Am the Bread of Life.”That is until I sat with Kitty at a funeral. I knew Kitty from a women’s interfaith group, so when I saw her at a funeral at a neighboring Episcopal church, I sat next to her. As the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend who is Jewish: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” I was God-smacked. I had preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time was such a powerful epiphany that I didn’t
want to go up to receive Holy Communion. It felt rude, exclusionary, and offensive. The next time we sang the song I almost choked. I could not sing these lyrics:
Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you.
That revelation widened for me a quest that had previously been one of interfaith exploration. I had been happily content to meet people who followed other paths, but I had not been confronted with the intrafaith question. But once it entered into my consciousness, I had no choice. I had to look with a critical eye at my belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation and make a decision about whether to keep it, give it away or transform it into something new. And if I wanted to transform it into something new, how could I do that with faithfulness and integrity?
Issues may change. Culture may change. The task of the church is to live out “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”).In reaching out to Millenials, spiritual independents, the “church alumni society,” we must take up the challenge in our own time. The inclusion of interfaith and intrafaith is an essential part of living out this challenge.
The reformation process is not only about the above-mentioned groups. Many members of congregations want to know how to navigate this “rummage sale” process. If we’re going to be part of this new reformation and we’re serious about relating to people of all ages in our congregations and to the spiritually independents, then the interfaith/intrafaith conversation must be part of our ministry.