Saturday, February 20, 2010

Go forth into all the world . . .

At the conclusion of the liturgy every Sunday, I tell the people to go.

Well, actually, I tell them they should come downstairs for coffee, food and fellowship. And then, after that, they should go into the world to love and serve the Lord. I take full advantage of the rubric which says theat the people should be dismissed with "these or similar words." (By rights, this part of the liturgy ought to be done by a deacon. At the moment, we have no deacon.)

This fits neatly with a recurring theme in my preaching: that the old mission strategy of building a Church and opening the doors may have worked once (though I'm not convinced), but it certainly doesn't work now. The work of the Church is out there in the world.

That was why I was struck by this pictorial essay from the Chicago Tribune about Episcopal priest Lane Hensley of the Church of the Transfiguration in the Chicago suburb of Palos Park, who went to the local commuter train station and offered the imposition of ashes to any commuters who desired it.

This wasn't the only place this sort of thing happened - it was just the first I read about. Another example was an ecumenical initiative in St. Louis - though that one apparently involved a more extended mini-liturgy.

There has been a lot of discussion about this here, here, here and in various other places.

Several commentators have a legitimate concern about the propriety of detaching a symbolic thing and ritual act (ashes and the imposition of ashes) from their proper context. What does it mean, to the average person, to have ashes smudged on their foreheads with an admonition to recall that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return?" Does the separation of the symbol and ritual from their proper context impair their meaning and strip them of their significance? And does this feed into the consumer culture - creating, as it were, a liturgical drive-through McSpirituality?

I think that these are very real and very legitimate questions. (After all, if my friends Dan Martins and Elizabeth Kaeton are asking the same tough questions, they must be legitimate questions.)

But I also think they miss a larger reality about our present context.

A generation or two ago, we could safely assume that the majority of those rushing by on the train platform in Chicago were (at least nominally) affiliated with some organized religious body. If they were from a Christian Church with a liturgical tradition that observed Ash Wednesday, we could similarly assume that, if they weren't going to be attending Church that day, the decision was more or less a conscious one - even if it was a default decision.

That was Christendom. Or at least the dying days of Christendom.

This is post-Christendom.

Today, for most of those rushing by, whatever faint religious affiliation remains is a distant memory of an hereditary affiliation. (I think Grandma was a Lutheran. Or was it Baptist? Maybe Church of England?) If they aren't going to attend an Ash Wednesday service, it's mostly because a) they didn't realize it even was Ash Wednesday, b) they had no idea what Ash Wednesday was, c) it would never occur to them to attend a Church service on a Sunday, let alone a regular work day.

Yet, if the assorted demographics tell us anything, this same generation is yearning for spiritual meaning. There is a hunger for a community of faith and for a religious sensibility which is neither a bland "be kind to others" nor an angry denunciation of non-conformity.

Yes, it challenges the religious sensibility of those who are already inside the doors. But then, so did Jesus when he healed on the Sabbath.

I'm inclined to think that Fr. Hensley's approach offered too little context. Practically speaking, I suspect the roughly three minute liturgy in St. Louis would be to much context in the context. (And, like several commentators at the various websites, I have some issues regarding the ecclesiastical haberdashery.)

But I like the idea. My quibbles on the execution are minor and easily managed.

To go out into the world and to proclaim to people - in a respectful and inviting way - their need of God, of grace, of repentance. That, it seems to me, is the Gospel in action.

If it awakens only one person, was it not worth it?

(The Diocese of Missouri page has a video that one cannot embed. Go check it out at the bottom of this page.)


The Religious Pícaro said...

I think the ecclesiastical haberdashery strikes just the right note - it suggests a link between what's going on at the day's "real" liturgies and what's going on on the train platform.

Alan said...

Interesting point. I agree that the world wants to hear the good news. I grew up in the United Church where liturgy was looked upon with wariness, if not disdain. Imagine my surprise to find that Knox United right in the heart of downtown Calgary has a DAILY eucharist service at 12 noon (and they even call it eucharist). I imagine they still use grape juice, but the point is, there is obviously a need for this kind of ministry. In the case of these churches south of the border, we know that the church BUILDING is not where most of Jesus' ministry took place so I think these actions are good for the world and I think that it is good that more traditional churches are doing things like this. I think more now than ever, we need to find more creative ways of spreading the good news. I agree with you that context is a difficult thing, but as you rightly point out, if it causes one person to ask questions, then we have certainly done some good haven't we?

Thanks for your post.


G said...

At the moment, we have no deacon.

You were ordained per saltum? Details, please! I know only one priest who was, in the Diocese of Montréal, but she had previously been set apart as a deaconess in the Church of England. Of course, it's the norm for our full communion partners.

Malcolm+ said...

Now, now. You know what I meant.

(Besides, the topic of the diaconate, per saltum ordination and cetera is outside the scope of this post. But perhaps worth posting on another time.)

Brother David said...

There are two such conversations that we have recently had at the Liturgy blog of NZ Padre Bosco Peters;

Y'all come.

Erika Baker said...

Is bringing the message in the same form and an abbridged liturgy what will attract people? Did they really only leave the church because they didn't like the building and the whole hour duration of the Service?

I kind of like what they're trying to do but it makes me wonder whether more of the same in an unusual setting will be enough, or whether we need to be a little more radical and develop a bolder imagination.

Have we fully understood the problem yet? Do we actually know what the unchurched are looking for and how we might reach them? Do we still think in terms of Them and Us, Them being the ones with the problem, Us being the ones with the answer if only they would listen?

Malcolm+ said...

I think you may have misunderstood my point, Erika. These are not, generally speaking, people who have left the Church. They are people who were never there. They've never experienced the building or the duration of the service.

That said, I agree that the Church needs to stop doing "more of the same" if it wants to change the demographic trends. And the Church also needs to get a better grip on how we are perceived by the world.

Instead, we see things like the CofE bishops clinging to the privileges of establishment like their seats in the Lords, and we see Rome and American evangelicalism both blithely expecting the state to conform to their respective theologies of marriage.

In my admittedly unscientific observation, I think most of those outside the church - whether the unchurched who were never here or the dechurched who've left for one reason or another - see a declining institution, clinging to past respectability. And I think they see an irrelevant institution with an unhealthy obsession about sex, awash in its own sexual peccadilloes.

Will ashes on a train platform overturn that? Not broadly, certainly. Is it a start? Based on the comments from the various clergy who did it - comments about the manifest and aching hunger they saw in so many faces and about the conversations that started - I'd say it's a start.

Erika Baker said...

Sorry Malcolm, what I had really been thinking about is that a generation or so ago, most people went to church, and then they started leaving and so their children never went to church in the first place.

What we need to do in order to reach out to those who have never been members of a church is to understand why their parents left.

I don't know of any academic work that looks properly at why people have turned away.

I know that each one of us has our own pet explanation based on what we personally dislike about the church, and so we get these futile conversations about whether the liturgy is too modern or not modern enough, whether our hymns are too ancient and worthy or not musically challenging enough, whether our message is to severe or too watered down, whether we’re too liberal or too prescriptively conservative-evangelical.

And with this self-referential mindset we then go out and tinker at the edges, trying this or that without really knowing what do to.

By all means, let's have Ash Wednesday on train platforms.
And I agree with you, the church needs to stop being so terribly self destructive.

But let's also have some proper research of what REALLY puts people off, what questions they have and how Christians can help answer those questions.
And let's be prepared for the new kind of searching questions we’re not usually terribly good at: what is the place of our faith in a multi-religious world, how can we still speak of Truth when there are so many who claim to have the truth, does it become a purely individualized enterprise? How do Christianity and neuroscience work together? What does God’s judgment when so much of what we are is genetic, when people have deep personality flaws and see that some people just cannot change their responses?

And let's be prepared for some surprising answers and maybe the realization that walking out on a station platform in our clerical garb hoping to draw people back into OUR buildings, OUR structures, OUR mindset is not really where it's at.

Malcolm+ said...

A couple of things, Erika.

First, I suspect that (in general) the reasons for the younger generation not coming to Church are principally (though not only) related to the fact that they were virtually never there as children, and so the underlying thing is that it simply doesn't occur to them. This is significantly different than why their parents left - or, more significantly, left and didn't come back.

We do have some public opinion data about Gen X and Gen Y attitudes towards religion generally and organized religion in particular. The Barna study, for instance, suggests that most of those generations see the Church as out of touch, authoritarian, homophobic and irrelevant.

Studies, of course, only tell you what they tell you. Interpreting data to develop a response is fraught with any number of problems - and I suspect that one of the major problems is that too often the Church's attempts to be "with it," "hip," or "relevant" come off as "desperate" and "dishonest."

I agree with you that simply standing at a train station with ashes is hardly going to spark a religious renaissance. But if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it appears that there was some acceptance and little blowback from the "unchurched," and that the principle objections have come from the "churched."

You're also correct that we need to start listening - not to tailor the Gospel to the World, but to find out why the way we speak the message now does not resonate. Curiously, here again attempts to do that often result in significant pushback from within. Saw some fairly angry coverage of a Seattle based website called