By Bishop Dave Nagler
Since the conversion of Constantine in 317 a.d. to the middle of the 20th century, the Christian church had been in the center of Western society. European history lurches from the horrible Doctrine of Discovery in 1492, to the colonization of the globe for economic and political gain, to the policy of Manifest Destiny in North America. The unchallenged assumption was that it was a virtue to make the whole world submit to the center of power, which was the Christian church. Christian supremacy was heralded as the end point of human history. Even the magazine, “The Christian Century” was so named because at the beginning of the 1900’s the prediction was that the whole world would become Christian by the year 2000.
There have been voices from the edges as well. The desert fathers and mothers recognized the danger of coupling empire with the Jesus movement so they established monastic communities in the wilderness to safeguard the core teachings and practices of the faith. Later Christians would follow in their footsteps bearing witness to the power of love over the love of power.
In China during the Maoist revolution the church leaders were jailed, and the church flourished. In Germany during the Holocaust dissenters from the state church signed the Barman declaration and formed the confessing church that opposed the policies of the Third Reich. In Central America, base Christian communities rejected the complicity of the official church with governments that oppressed their people, and the liberation movement was born. In the United States during the centuries of chattel slavery, believers in Jesus put their lives on the line as abolitionists and allies who created the underground railroad liberating enslaved people.
A 30,000 foot view of church history is revealing. When we were in power (politically and militarily) we caused incredible damage and betrayed the mission of Jesus of Nazareth. When we were pushed to the edges or forced to face a great injustice, we found our voice and purpose. We remembered that our mandate is love and not force.
You might object to this simplistic view of history. You would be right to point out that many important institutions that have benefitted humanity have been established during the periods of history when the church was at the center of society. However, I would argue that no institution, no matter how beneficial, is a counterweight to slavery, genocide, misogyny, cultural oppression, land appropriation, racism, and dehumanization of people with non-binary gender identities or non-heterosexual relationships.
Why does this matter now? On Christmas Day the New York Times published an article by Ross Douthat (“The Americanization of Religion”, NYT, 12/25/22) that examined the state of the church in America today. He cited a Pew Research Center model that presented four potential options for the future of the church in the coming decades. Basically, they are all models for decline. If nothing changes these trendlines project a bleak picture of our future together.
What if the Holy Spirit is missing from these projections? What if the people of God do our best work from the edges not the center of society? What if God is calling us currently to be the church in a vulnerable new way? This church will look a lot more like the early church or the first disciples. We would be deepening our spiritual practices, joining in God’s work to bring justice and healing to our communities, and finding our groove again! Isn’t that so much better than chasing the trappings of a bygone era? It is time to exchange our basilicas for backpacks. It is a season for unleashing the power of love and letting go of our need to “go back to how things were before”. The truth is that the good old days were not so good for so many of God’s children.
The word “eccentric” literally means “not in the center”. We have often used this word to say that a person or group is odd or strange. Eccentric people don’t fit the mold. They dance to the beat of a different drum.
The world yearns for an eccentric church; a place for misfits, non-conformists, weirdos…you know, people like us! It cries out for a community that rejects the earth destroying practices of the center; one that refuses to measure worth by a bank account statement or the title that a person holds. The Spirit is calling for a church that embraces those who have been rejected, dehumanized, or discounted. This community does not need to be right with all the perfect answers but is doggedly committed to relationships. It cancels nobody but learns and practices the hard work of true reconciliation. It is diverse, artistic, lean, agile, focused, and above all, loving.
To become this kind of church will require a depth of spirituality that we have previously not known. It is never easy to move from the center to the edges when all the things that we have been taught to value are in the center. All the shiny trinkets and promises of security are there. We will need to become more intimately connected to God and more deeply committed to each other. We will definitely need more parties and fewer meetings! No more wringing our hands over a misremembered past. Let’s move on to the dancing and celebrating the gift of life and love!
This is my prayer for us dear synod. I feel this call in the core of my being. Do you feel it too? Do you want to be part of such a movement, a church that looks and feels like the dynamic community of the book of Acts?
I believe that all (and I mean all) that we have experienced in our congregations over the past 30-40 years is leading us to a new beginning. The Spirit has been active in ways that feel like losing but ultimately are pruning us for a revival. Let us recommit ourselves to following Jesus and his joyful mission of feeding the hungry, releasing the captives, healing the sick and casting out the demonic spirits of our times. Let’s embrace our eccentricity! We can only do this work on the edges of society. May it be so!
Peace and All Good,