Monthly Archives: February 2010

Sermon for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany: Never fear, none of us are good enough

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13) ;  Psalm 138 ; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ; Luke 5:1-11
The Call of Isaiah

I’ve read and I’m told that the Church is in trouble.

According to George Barna, 3500 to 4000 churches close their doors each year in America.  Some agencies put the number at more like 7,000.

As one church planter put it:

“I foresee a quickening of churches dying in America over the next twenty years.  There are tens of thousands of churches filled with communities that have shrunk below 100, 70, 50 and are filled with an aging population.  Many of these churches will not know how to survive.” (Drew Goodmanson)

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

Only 15% of churches in the United States are growing and just 2.2% of those are growing by conversion growth.  In other words, many others are playing a shell game with the already-Christian, as they move from one congregation to another.

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

According to some estimates churches lose over 2.5 million people each year to “nominalism and secularism,” the majority of whom may never set foot in a church community again.  Perhaps you know some folks in this category, or perhaps you were in the category for a while.

Specifically, in the Episcopal Church, according to Dr. Kirk Hadaway (program officer for congregational research) in the most recent state of the Church report to General Convention: “The age structure of The Episcopal Church suggests an average of forty thousand deaths and twenty-one thousand births, or a natural decline of 19,000 members per year,” a population larger than most dioceses. The advanced—and still advancing—age of our membership, combined with our low birth rate, means that we lose the equivalent of one diocese per year.”  This is, of course, assuming that most of those 21 thousand babies grow up and continue to practice their faith in the Episcopal Church or elsewhere–a rosy expectation that experience has proven to be false in most cases. (click here to download the State of the Church Report as a PDF)

I’m told the Church is in trouble.

Our experience in the Episcopal Church is not unique.  The Southern Baptist Church–which, along with the Roman Catholic often acts as a bit of a foil in conversations amongst Episcopalians–The Southern Baptist Church has the highest proportion of members over the age of 70 years old of any denomination.

In 2008, their outgoing president Frank Page, warned that, should current trends continue as many as half of all Southern Baptist Churches could close by 2030.

And if the Church is in trouble, you might expect evidence to be visible among leaders.  Unfortunately it is.

According to Ashland Theological Seminary and the North American Missions board (also found on this blog):

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.  Anecdotally at least, the number seems higher for second career clergy.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 90% say their Seminary Training did not prepare them for what they face day-to-day in the congregation.
  • Eighty percent of seminary graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry after their first position and within the first five years.
  • Only 10% reach age 65 as a pastor.
  • Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
  • Seventy percent said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermons.

Pastors’ Wives/spouses:

  • Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.
  • The majority of pastor’s wives surveyed said that the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry.

I’ve heard the Church is in trouble, and looking at these realities would seem to confirm it.

It would be tempting, even for me as a clergy person, to look at the evidence and say that it demonstrates dysfunctional and inept pastors or troubled congregations.

But the thing is, I think that the majority of people in those congregations that end up closing, and the majority of those pastors who ended up throwing in the towel on their ordained ministry are faithful people who had their hearts in the right place.

And maybe that’s an even scarier prospect.

There’s no easy scape goat.

But the fact of the matter is that there aren’t any qualified leaders in the Christian community–not the way we’ve been conditioned to think about it.

None of those pastors were “good enough” to be pastors.

Perhaps some of them made the mistake of believing that they were.

Our first reading this morning has something to say about that.  I’m thankful that it is a reading that I’ve heard at every ordination service I’ve been to.

In it, we hear the account of Isaiah’s call to be a prophet.

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.  And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Consider Isaiah’s reaction to God’s presence.  He does not pretend to be worthy.  He does not presume to stand before God as a holy person, prepared for whatever task.

“I am lost,” he says, “for I am a man of unclean lips…”

One of my friends, quite an evangelical, explained his decision to prostrate or lay face down at his ordination service, something usually more associated with the Anglo-Catholic wing of Episcopalians/Anglicans.  Looking at Isaiah as an example, he said “when God’s in the house, you hit the deck.”

This is the proper response of humanity to holiness.

So no one is fit to be a pastor or priest without divine intervention.

And I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, and it may come as a shock–but none of you are fit to be Christians without Jesus Christ.

Consider the way Isaiah’s story unfolds:

Continue reading

Anglican theological distinctiveness

In the recent essay I wrote for The Living Church, “Reviving the quadrilateral” (which interested readers can find here), I made the following remark without explaining it in detail: “Whether one looks to Jewel’s Apology, Hooker’s Laws, or the works of the Caroline Divines, there is clearly an Anglican identity, expressed more clearly in the manner and tenor of interpretation and in the particular sources of authority than through specific doctrines.” I did not really feel the need to defend the statement since I believe it is a widely held understanding, at least among some Anglicans.  I know that I’ve read similar statements in the works of Rowan Williams and Michael Ramsey.  This evening however, I read a very good summary of the idea from Henry R. McAdoo’s Spirit of Anglicanism: A Survey of Anglican Theological Method in the Seventeenth Century (not to be confused with the similarly titled book by Michael Ramsey, Anglican Spirit).

After reading the first chapter of McAdoo’s book, I thought I’d share some of it with you:

The term theological method needs some comment.  There is a distinctively Anglican theological ethos, and the distinctiveness lies in method rather than in content, for Anglicanism, as Chillingworth put it, has declined to call any man master in theology.  There is no specifically Anglican corpus of doctrine and no king-pin in Anglican theology such as Calvin, nor is there any tendency to stress specific doctrines such as predestination, or specific philosophies such as Thomism or nominalism or any other one of the several medieval brands of philosophy.

Richard Montague’s assertion that he was neither a Calvinist nor a Lutheran but a Christian, illustrate the point that Anglicanism is not committed to believing anything because it is Anglican but only because it is true.  Perhaps the most important thing about Hooker is that he wrote no Summa and composed no Institutes, for what he did was to outline method.  What is distinctively Anglican is then not a theology but a theological method. (p. 1)

A scathing critique of a tendency of mainline denominations

Thanks to Ben Myers over at Faith & Theology Blog for posting this.  It’s from Australia, but is applicable to the mainline denominations throughout the English Speaking world.  The frustrating thing is, I think most folks in our culture live with a view of Christianity formed by a fundamentalism-not fundamentalism polarity.

Ruins of Laodicea engraving by William Miller after T Allom

Ruins of Laodicea

What I mean by that is something exhibited  by Richard Dawkins’ defense of Pat Robertson as a “true Christian.”  The campaign of the new atheism depends largely on the widespread belief that all religious folks are fundamentalist and all religions dangerous by nature.  I would say that many Christians have tacitly accepted this narrative as well, and, if they are not fundamentalists express their faith largely as “we’re not that.”  It’s just this sort of attitude, coupled with a natural desire to preserve institutions and the natural resistance of structures to change  that have wrought much of the decline within mainline denominations.  (That, and the fact, as Peter Berger has pointed out, the mainline “won” culturally speaking and the values that defined the mainline protestant churches have pretty much been universalized in our culture while being detached from their roots.  For many folk, there’s no reason to go to church only to have what one already thinks affirmed.)

The lowest common denomination: a lament

by Scott Stephens (Scott is a pastor and theological educator in the Uniting Church in Australia, one of the country’s largest mainline denominations. In this piece, Scott discusses the Church’s founding confessional document, the Basis of Union. A shorter version of this piece was published in the denominational magazine, Journey.)

Over thirty years ago, the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) embarked on what could have been a remarkable journey, but it deviated from its original course with devastating consequences. It is now a shell of its former self, like so much Liberal Protestantism throughout the West, having gone whoring after the strange gods of impotent theology, liturgical gimmickry, inert bureaucracy and social respectability.

The past decade in particular has seen the UCA relinquish any prophetic vocation it might once have had — along with a considerable portion of its ecclesial and evangelistic vitality — and instead assume the inoffensive role of the religious division of a non-government provider of community and health services.

And so, in an extraordinary apostasy from its original calling, the UCA has decided to represent the ‘middle way’, the path of least resistance, a facile alternative to fundamentalism, evangelicalism and pentecostalism. In short, it has become the lowest common denomination. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine that, if God sees fit to grant it another thirty years, all that will be left of the Uniting Church itself is the logo on hospitals and Blue Care letterhead — and that for purely historical reasons.

But perhaps most troubling is that the fledgling church was warned against this very apostasy by Davis McCaughey, inaugural President of the Uniting Church. In his incendiary address to the 1979 Assembly of the UCA, McCaughey expressed his fear that the Church would be hijacked by bureaucrats and pedants, and that its clergy would be reduced to careerists and panderers:

“We no longer seem to expect our ministers to spend hours (literally hours) every week, thinking, reading, praying: so that when the hungry sheep look up they may be fed…. And I am not wholly convinced that our Constitution, Regulations and Procedures are sufficiently and rigorously controlled by [our eschatological hope]. I am not persuaded that they are not in danger … of becoming ends in themselves.”

He warned just as passionately against the tendency he perceived to adopt a form of incestuous Church patriotism, which would obscure and ultimately destroy the Church’s vocation to carry on the mission of Christ:

“At all events the cry for a sense of identity in the Uniting Church cannot be answered by the offer of a new kind of Church patriotism. In an important sense, we in the Uniting Church in Australia have no identity, no distinctive marks — other than belonging with the people of God brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on their way to the consummation of all things in him.… We have embarked on a course in which we ask men and women to forget who they are, and chiefly to remember whose they are.”

{Read it all}