Programatic Paralysis ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

The annual “Auction Rummage” was sponsored every year by the organization known then as “The Women of the Church.” Each year they took over the Parish Hall for three weeks, and gathered in contributions from attics and garages. The money raised went to a regional church charity that distributed clothes and food in the Winter. Every year the competition increased to outdo the last year’s raised amount. Tenacious behavior, not to say, vicious, seemed more and more to surface in those weeks.

Gradually the actual women of the parish who were sincere followers of Jesus were more and more displaced. Women of the community who were never seen in the parish on a regular Sunday took prominent roles. The clergy and staff were inclined to go to a conference or on vacation, if possible, during “Rummage Season.”

And then the new Curate, questioned its purpose, and suggested it not be held the following year. If the one hundred or so women involved each year contributed $200.00 to a fund the sum raised, he thought, would be larger than ever, with none of the strife and parish disruption. It was then that “Programmatic Paralysis” set in. ‘We have always done it,’ and ‘The women would be so upset,’ and ‘The money is raised for the poor after all.’ Needless to say the Auction Rummage did not die. The Curate moved on.

Such events as that rummage are rare these days, but the pattern is not. Questioning an entrenched program is threatening. How many VBS packages have to be purchased before there is serious theological discussion about the outcome? How many weak choir performances have to be suffered before the purpose of a robed choir is discussed. How many Alpha Courses must be held, with all the attendant effort, before the true results are evaluated? How many Newcomers Classes? How long must Small Groups remain that don’t spread the kingdom? How long must the favorite program of some substantial donor be continued? What makes this kind of paralysis happen?

Program Paralysis always takes hold of a parish and its leadership when they have made secondary things primary. When they have made “running the parish” more important than “making disciples.” When they have made “some activity” at the parish buildings or on their campus more important than right faith and behavior in the lives of the people. It is really that simple to understand, and it is always fueled by confusion and laziness.

Confusion is rooted in the neglect of the clearest mandate the Lord Jesus gave to those who had been with him long enough to follow him no matter what the cost. They were now to: “Go and make disciples,” not engage in church activity.

Laziness is rooted in sinful resistance to walking in the light. Nothing could be more characteristic of apostolic believers than their desire to follow Jesus and become fishers of men. That always requires grace, but that alone is insufficient. It takes an act of will.

 

Next Week: The Moment of Truth?

Leadership Paralysis ​​ (by Jon Shuler​​)

Physical paralysis is a terrifying thing. I grew up in an era when many children routinely suffered Infantile Paralysis, or Polio, and my parents lived in fear that it would strike our family. When a successful vaccine was discovered there was joy in our home, and everywhere.

Leadership paralysis is not a physical disease, but a spiritual one, yet its effects can be tragic. When the body of Christ is under attack, and needing firm and clear leadership to avoid serious danger, a paralyzed leader is catastrophic. The flock will be wounded or worse. Many will fall away, some will be led astray, and others will just relapse into a religious church behavior. The truth of the gospel tells us that this state of affairs will eventually have eternal consequences, if there is no turning back. They will forfeit life eternal with the Lord.

Why then does this phenomena manifest itself so frequently at this time in history? What has happened to the leadership called for by Christ Jesus in the beginning? Why is there so little understanding of the evil forces which seek to cheat, kill, and destroy the flock of God? Why do so many leaders show so little willingness to put their lives and reputations on the line, if required, for the radical truth of the gospel?

The Scripture describes “a sheep who before his shearers is dumb” as a picture of the Lord going willingly to his sacrificial death for the sins of the world. But nowhere does it use that image to describe the behavior of a shepherd refusing to defend and care for the sheep of God’s pasture. How does such leadership paralysis begin?

It begins when leaders are given offices in the church in a manner unrelated to the authenticity of their spiritual experience. When “good” men become ordained, and not converted men of courage and character. When men with a smile and and a laugh take the place of the prayerful and humble. When the performance of religious ritual, done properly and in order, supplants the inner working of the Holy Spirit building up the body of Christ. When comfort and complaisance take the place of spiritual competence.

This deterioration continues when the life of the organized church becomes more and more patterned after the other organizations of the culture, and begins to lose its divine calling and anointing. Leadership becomes technique, programs, and methods, and not godly boldness, compassion, and grace. Organizational compliance supplants gospel obedience.

When such patterns have become normal, it is not long before even those within the leadership who have a sincere faith and desire to serve the Lord Jesus can become paralyzed. The power of social pressure and acceptance outweighs the call to do right. The example of bad leaders gives tacit permission for more bad leadership. The fear of the loss of job security paralyzes. The downward spiral continues.

 

Next Week: Programatic Paralysis

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

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​​​