Cultural Paralysis​​ ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

For most of my early ministry, if I had read last week’s post, I would have comforted myself that as a faithful Anglican priest I was part of a church that was keeping all the things mentioned in the last paragraph as central. I would have thought I was seeking “first the kingdom of God,” and remaining loyal to “the apostle’s teaching and fellowship.” But how wrong I was, if the outcome of our efforts had been measured in the light of the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus. In those years I could not see that truth.

We did measure some things, of course. Had I known how to evaluate it, however, I would have seen that what we measured was what our church culture had come to expect. The cultural behaviors that dominated the life of the parish that I served, largely unconsciously, did not measure our faithfulness to the kingdom of God. They measured denominational organization and loyalty.

What did we measure? Most of all we measured attendance. How many people came to Sunday worship? Secondly we measured financial giving. Was it up or down? Were we on track to meet our budget for the year or not? Close behind we measured the number of children in Sunday School, and the adults who came to the Adult Class at the same time. Once a year we summed up the number of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burials. We had to send in the the past year’s budget as well, and all by the end of January, so the diocese would be able to make their assessments for the new year. The report measured many other things as well, but they all showed what our church leadership culture valued.

But how did any of these things show us if we were seeking first the kingdom of God? How did any of these metrics help us to faithfully evaluate if we were proving to be, and to make, disciples of the Lord Jesus? These questions were not asked. These we did not measure, and so for many years – I now see – we were far from seeking “first the kingdom of God.”

Modern statistical sampling has long made very clear, to those who would pay attention, that the church life that we were unconsciously encouraging was not producing people noticeable different from unbelievers. Church people go home to the same neighborhoods, read the same newspapers, eat at the same restaurants, send their children to the same schools, watch the same sports events, and spend money in the same ways as their neighbors. Statistically American “Christians” are not behaving differently than non-Christians. And so in a nation with over 70% of its people describing themselves as Christian, the wider culture is in a cataclysmic season of moral decline. Meanwhile much of the church goes on rearranging the deck chairs of a sinking ship.

Today the organized Western church is almost completely and utterly ineffective in challenging that declension by its own witness. By the majority of its people living in the light of the kingdom of God. She is trapped in a cultural paralysis leading unto death.

 

Next Week: Leadership Paralysis

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The Culture of the Kingdom​​ ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

The Lord of the Church declared to his earliest followers that they should seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.(Mt 6:33) What would have to be different if the church in the twenty-first century really lived that? What if the culture of the kingdom was our hearts desire?

First we would have to clarify what we mean when we say the kingdom of God.We would have to unequivocally agree that it means to live under the rule of God. What God wants we would have to want. What God forbids we would have to forbid. What God commands we would have to obey. But of course that would not complete our initial task. We would have to agree about how we are to knowwhat God wants, forbids, and commands.

From the first day of the Christian era, that meant understanding what the Lord Jesus Christ taught and showed by his life and death among us. That was central. It meant, in the beginning being around and with those who had followed him most closely. It meant to be near the apostles and disciples who knew Jesus in the flesh. It meant, above all, to be where it was possible to learn and be a part of the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.(Acts 2:42) It meant to be part of the gathered community of believers who had received the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit, and to begin the journey of having their lives conformed to Christ Jesus. That was enough. It meant being part of the church where you lived.

But as Jesus promised, there would be challenges. Some would seem to be believers who were not. Some would follow for a season and then fall away. Some would be part of the community for a lifetime, but never bear fruit. And some would be so fruitful that their life of faith, which started as a small seed, would be multiplied a hundredfold. The Holy Spirit would lead them and bring to remembrance all that he had commanded.

And Jesus made clear that some would be responsible for shepherding the flock of God that was looking to him as Savior and Lord. Boundaries would have to be set, forms would have to be standardized, patterns of teaching and worship would become regularized, but all was to be done in the service of faithfulness to the kingdom of God. Whatever was instituted was to assist the seeking firstthat marked all true followers, it was never to impede or undermine. What were some of those things in the first local church?

Most historians would cite Sunday worship, reading the Holy Scriptures aloud, proclamation of the central truths of the gospel when the church gathered, the sacramental acts of baptism (to incorporate new believers) and eucharist (to strengthen and sustain believers), and a recognized leadership accountable to the apostles teaching and fellowship.It was these things that shaped the culture of the church as it sought first the kingdom of God.They prayed for that kingdom to come on earth.

Next Week: Cultural Paralysis

Cultural Captivity​​ ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

One of the characteristics of Anglicans in the West is their focus on the literary inheritance of the Church of England. Nothing is more likely than to find Anglicans quoting C.S. Lewis, for example. Evangelical Anglicans (in the ascendant) cite John Stott, J.I. Packer, Alistair McGrath, or J.C. Ryle. Anglo Catholics (struggling to find their place today) are likely to read Arthur Middleton. Progressive Modernists read Rowan Williams. Everyone it seems reads N.T. Wright. This love does not just find expression in theological writings, but also in general literary and poetical ones as well. With the advent of the television age, and especially the digital revolution of the past decades, this focus can also be seen in the delight many educated Anglicans take in the historical productions of the BBC. Not all who watch these shows are Christians, to be sure, but among those who do will be found a high percentage of Anglicans.

My family watched a BBC series from 2015 last week called Wolf Hall. Based on two books by Hillary Mantel, the six part series focused on the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the time of King Henry VIII. As a piece of cinematic entertainment it was compelling. I will leave to others the question of its complete historical veracity, but as a window into the time of the English Reformation it was illuminating. The gap between the reality of faith unfolded by the Lord Jesus, as recorded in Holy Scripture, and the behavior of his 16th century representatives in the Church of England hierarchy could not have been more stark. It was, if one doubted it, a reminder of why the Reformation was so desperately needed in that time, and how much good came – eventually – out of the recovery of the New Testament in a language that could be understood by the common people.

But looked at in the light of cultural history, and aware of any cultures power to corrupt, it revealed one of the Anglican Familys most serious challenges. To see the way the Christian Faith was portrayed, entangled in power politics and carnal appetites, was to become aware of the extraordinary distance between the culture of 16th century England and todays collapsing Christian culture of the West. Almost nothing in the series would lead a modern viewer to choose to embrace the faith of Jesus Christ.  The witness to the beauty and truth of the gospel was nowhere evident. And yet, there were the leaders of the English Church, wearing the same robes, bearing the same titles, and celebrating at the same altars, as their successors today. And representing an establishment elitism that is found among many Anglicans throughout the globe to this day. So what am I suggesting?

It is this: what goes largely unchallenged in the modern Anglican world, even among those of us who love our inheritance as Christian Anglicans, is its entanglement in culture patterns and understandings that are slowly asphyxiating the life of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our midst. There is a cultural captivity that has endured for so long, and runs so deep, that many faithful members and leaders cannot even see it.

Next Week: The Culture of the Kingdom

Cultural Seduction​​ ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

When I was in my early days of speaking and writing about the reform that I believed to be needed in the Anglican Family of the church, and while still remaining an active parish priest, I was occasionally challenged by the assertion that I was not an Anglican.This barb wounded me then, and the memory of it wounds me still, because it is so untrue. I have been a part of the Anglican Family for my whole life. Though I was baptized in a town with no Anglican community, I was part of one from my fifth year. I was confirmed, married, and ordained in this family. What I now know about the barb, however, is that it reveals a cultural understanding of Anglicanism, not a theological one.

Modern Anglicanism or, as I prefer, the Anglican Way, became a distinct variety of Christian Faith in the 16th century, and was a reform movement rooted in the experience of the Early Church as reflected in the Holy Scriptures. It was self consciously attempting to take its place, in England, as a faithful part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It joyfully embraced the central tenants of the Protestant Reformation. Time, of course, has changed the English Church over the centuries, as has the global influence of differing cultures in the 165 nations where a version of that English reform has been planted. But despite differences, most observers would say that the global shapeof the Anglican Way is a very discernible and distinctive one. There is an Anglican Culture.

What are some of the hallmarks of that culture? In some places, the distinctive worship traditions of the Book of Common Prayer are central, but not in all. In some places, high regard for the outward forms of ministerial order are central, but not in all. In some places a deep devotion to evangelical truth is central, but not in all. In some places a serious submission to creedal orthodoxy is very evident, but not in all. The list could go on, and it reveals more and more that there is really not one Anglicanism,there are many. These are the result of the influence of many cultures, but one thing is almost everywhere true: the culture in that place or nation is assumed to be THE  “Anglican Way.It is the way things are done by Anglicansin that culture or nation.  Anything else is treated as alien. The central truth of the gospel – which is universal –  has often been seduced by the culture.

The impact of this fact upon any effort to reform the global family of Anglicans can not be overestimated. Cultural loyalty, whether to a family, or a nation, is usually too strong to yield unless major forces come into play, and even then the tenacity of such local loyalty can last for centuries. If that is so what can bring major change? History would suggest either major societal upheaval, war, or a mighty move of God.

That God would prevent all violent social turmoil, and wars, is surely the prayer of all faithful people, but also by the Spirit of God may he bring the church to reformation in the truth. Who will pray for that? Nothing less than the power of God can call the global Anglican Family to a new Reformation.

Next Week: Cultural Captivity

The Church That Submits To Christ​​ ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

The two passages of Scripture that have most significantly shaped my thinking about the church are these: first the apostle Pauls teaching about the body of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians; and second the description Luke gives us of the early believers after the day of Pentecost being devoted to the apostles teaching and fellowship(Acts 2:42). For all the years of my ministry these have spurred me on as a leader in the church. But some time ago, while teaching about Christian marriage, I was stunned to see the apostle offhandedly refer to the relationship between submission in marriage and the way the church submits to Christ.(Eph 5:21)

Why was I stunned? Because all my experience was of a church that was generally submitted to other things. A church that maintained traditions, even when they were clearly ineffective in spreading the kingdom of God. A church that maintained organizational control at the expense of gospel liberty. A church that was led by many who seemed to seek the chief seat rather than the towel of the servant. A church that habitually put buildings and grounds ahead of global mission, indeed any gospel mission. A church racked with power struggles and conflict over points of doctrine and order that seemed not central at all to the gospel preached by the Lord Jesus. A church dedicated to the latest fads or programs but which didnt seem to want to restructure to live under the authority of the Scripture.

Paul experienced the church differently. He experienced her as submitted to Christ. When and how did this experience come to him? Presumably it must have come to him in the very first days of his Christian life. He was led to the Lord by an obedient disciple of the church in Damascus. He then spent nearly three years as part of that church. Though the text is silent, I have no doubt that his years in Tarsus were similarly lived in a community of believers there. When he was called to accompany Barnabas to Antioch everything he already knew must have been deeply reinforced by his years in that glorious local body. When the two of them set out on the missionary journey recorded by Luke, they were helping to plant churches that submitted to Christ because that was the only church that was the church. Can the experience of those days be seen again? There is little argument that many would doubt it. But does the Lord of the church?

A central doctrine of the Scriptures, emerging from the experience of the historic community of faith, is that while Gods purposes remain unfulfilled, he will never cease to call his people back to faithfulness. There will come a day when the last of the elect will come in, and then the end will unfold. But until that day, there is time to repent and amend our ways. But who will hear this cry, and who will pay the price? For surely, to begin again to be a submitted to Christchurch will require sacrifice in the face of a hostile world.

Next Week: Cultural Seduction​​​

Misunderstanding the Church?​​ ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

The 20th century Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once wrote, in 1952, a very interesting book with the title: The Misunderstanding of the Church. It was an impassioned argument that the modern institutional forms of Christian life in the West had all but extinguished authentic Christian living and ministry. What the New Testament meant when the word church was used, and what the life and patterns of the modern church signified, where two nearly completely different things, so Brunner claimed. It was vigorously refuted by some, and slipped into general obscurity at the time, but the thesis of his book is almost irrefutable nearly seventy years later. Church has become a building or a place in the developed world, but in the first generations it was a family of believers. It was to be found whenever and wherever believing followers of Jesus gathered. It was a living body.

Today, study after study in the West finds, the personal lives of those calling themselves Christians is remarkably similar to the lives of those who are not Christians. Yet almost 70% of the population of my country (USA) claim to be Christian people. Attendance at worship, which most English speakers call going to church,has fallen precipitously in the last few decades, but there are still millions and millions who do so every week. If that is so, why is the lived life of serious discipleship so rare?

Faithful pastoral leaders know there is a problem, but most of their attempts to address it have little lasting impact. For a season there is a push to have people gather in small groups, or in community groups, or in pastorates, or small group bible studies, but what is almost always experienced there is a minor version of what is experienced on Sunday. There will be social interaction and fellowship of a sort, some perfunctory prayer, perhaps a reading of scripture with a meditation led by a designated teacher,and then all will go back to their own homes and lives as before. Any resemblance to the church of Jesus in the early centuries is hard to discover. How has this happened?

To begin to answer that question we must go back in history. We are remarkably blessed to have a description of the church in the first century recorded for us in the second book of Luke, known to us as the Acts of the Apostles. Even a cursory reading of that book of the Bible will quicken in a true believer a hunger for what has been lost. The serious focus of those men and women was on the Lord Jesus Christ and obedience to his teaching. Opening the New Testament to the letters of the apostles reveals the same thing. The early communities were not perfect, far from it, but there was an unquenchable desire to be in conformity with what the Lord Jesus had taught his disciples, and a deep commitment to be found in him. Anyone turning to what Paul, and Peter, James, and John wrote discovers letters to people in relationship to other people, not to institutional systems.  

So why are modern leaders perpetuating forms of church life that do not issue in the function for which the body of Christ was called into existence? To make true disciples?

Next Week: The Church That Submits To Christ

Ideas or Actions?​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

Some years ago I read a book that used the word ideation.It was a new word to me, and I was intrigued to discover that it was defined as the formation of ideas or concepts.In the context of the book it was associated with the pleasure found in coming up with ideas, but not necessarily doing anything with them. Forming an idea was satisfaction enough. As I thought and prayed about this I became convinced that this is a major problem in contemporary leadership circles within the church. Many are committed to ideas, but seem frequently unconcerned with the actions which would lead to them having consequences. Let me cite a few examples.

In the 1990s the Anglican Communion undertook to declare a Decade of Evangelismwhich had few lasting institutional consequences. Often the actions, or behavioral changes, necessary to be effective were never embraced. Evangelism, as a program, was simply tacked on to the institutional structures that already existed. Any internal rethinking that would make evangelistic action normative was rarely undertaken.

In the 2000s there was a great surge of conversation about Missional Communitythat was embraced conceptually, but this too rarely came to anything in the established churches of the Anglican Family. A few highly active parishes added more missionalprograms to their suite of offerings, but rigorous realignment of priorities and resources was uncommon. To reform a parish so that it would be a missional communitywas almost unknown, and almost no diocese – despite using the language – changed any of its constituent behaviors. Missionary behavior lived out locally (not short term trips and going to conferences) that would truly begin to extend the kingdom of God to new people and places, did not become widely normal. The phrase did.

In the 2010s there was increasing talk of discipleshipacross almost all denominational families and newer movements, but any close look at what that really meant frequently revealed that it almost always was about improving their brandor tribe,and rarely about making true new followers of the Risen Lord Jesus who live as disciples he would recognize, no matter what the cost.

These three examples illustrate what is a serious problem among many of the current generation of church leaders in the West: they love ideas, especially new religious ideas, but the actual behavior change to implement them is lacking. Sadly this seems particularly so if the ideas challenge the comfortable routines they have become used to. What then of any new Anglican Reformation?

Unquestionably the answer will depend, as ever, on the willingness of individual leaders to hear the word of Jesus and to obey it. Over and over in our Lords day the religious leadership was challenged by his teaching. They heard, but did not hear in the inner way, the only way that leads to new life – repentance and obedient faith. Some have always liked his ideas, then and now, but fewer act upon them.

Next Week: Misunderstanding the Church?