By Calvin Lane
Recently I was asked to teach a course on liturgy and worship for a United Methodist seminary, one with a more charismatic demographic than I’m used to at Nashotah House. It has been a wonderfully demanding exercise to translate liturgical principles. Were this course for my usual students, there are certain things I could take for granted (the expectation of weekly Eucharist, for example). I am sure these Methodist students will bring their own expectations and gifts.
But what books could I use? I want to share the wealth of rich insights from the 20th-century liturgical movement, material that is as practical as it is theological, material that is biblically sound and creedal. But how could I effectively communicate in a winsome and accessible way?
About a decade ago, while teaching for Trinity School for Ministry, I used the late Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. I have since used snippets here and there to launch Church history classes on the right foot, but I had not really explored anything else by Webber.
As I started to prepare for this class for Methodist students, I picked up Webber’s Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (the last in his series of four Ancient-Future books). There are parts I found really delightful, and, as a slow reader myself, I was struck by how easy it was to read. I breezed through the rest of Webber’s book in two nights. What he was saying seemed so obvious as to be too simplistic. And it was written at an elementary-school reading level. Though I initially doubted its utility, there was one place in the book that stuck out to me.
Webber wrote about being at a gathering of pastors, and a few of them asked him about the regularity of celebrating the Eucharist. They balked at doing it more than a couple of times a year, and they were hoping that Webber could suggest something else. Webber told them there is no substitute for the Lord’s body and blood, that material and spiritual re-engagement with God’s work to renew and reclaim the world in Jesus.
Here’s the lesson: Webber was not writing these books for me, a High Church Anglican with academic training. Webber isn’t Schmemann — nor is he Bouyer, Dix, Kavanagh, or Jungmann. He’s not even James K.A. Smith. Webber knew those authors, and he was writing for those pastors who would have found their theology inaccessible and, as a consequence of hitting such a roadblock, would turn to bad theology or no theology at all. They would, maybe unintentionally, operate in ministry with a divide between pastoral care and practical ministry, on the one hand, and theology on the other.
Webber was willing to do the hard work of translation.
Some colleagues were recently discussing the peril of being perceived as too academic, and the knee-jerk reaction is to reject “dumbing down” our writing, teaching, and preaching. I agree wholeheartedly. But that posture can also easily cover up our inability to communicate effectively. The appearance of erudition can mask the fact that we’re writing for a closed circle, or worse, only for ourselves. And this especially presents a problem in the Church.
Christians communicate. Clergy do it. Lay people do it. It’s at the heart what we do. And what do we communicate? We communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ, the message that new life is at hand from a gracious God who, in Jesus, sacrificed himself to reclaim his beloved creation. We call that ever-present task evangelism.
Without ambiguity, evangelism is about making disciples of Jesus, to win converts to Christianity, members of the body of Christ, the Church. And this is at the heart of the Christian tradition. The 20th-century theologian Emil Brunner once said that “the Church lives by mission as a fire lives by burning.” The New Testament has mission as its foundational paradigm. Christ’s Incarnation, as described in the prologue of John’s Gospel, is a movement from God to humanity to bring light and life. At the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ commissions his apostles to make disciples of all nations. The two-part story of Luke-Acts begins in Jerusalem and moves out, inexorably, to the ends of the earth. And then there was Paul traveling the Mediterranean world to win converts.
So, let’s be clear: evangelism is what Christians do. And it entails winning people to Jesus, fishing for people, enlarging his body, the Church. Evangelism is not simply about working and serving with people from different backgrounds, as important as that may be for our evangelism strategies. Nor is it simply learning about other cultures, as important as that may be for the work of evangelism. Likewise, too, there is the work of Christian formation so that seeds planted will bear good fruit, 30, 60, and even 100-fold.
So, the lesson from Webber is about communication – our central task. Here are just three questions about evangelism and formation that seem obvious to me in light of Webber’s approach.
- How are our seminaries forming pastors who can translate and communicate the theology of Augustine or George Lindbeck for a single, working parent? How can we translate Rowan Williams (whose paragraphs, much less chapters, can take an academic an hour to digest)? That work — that ministry — needs to be done. Otherwise we quarantine such theology and our people perceive it (wrongly) as impractical, non-pastoral, and too academic. The dangers of such quarantining should be obvious.
- How are our congregations planning and leading Christian formation and education for all ages? Certainly, wacky studies about aliens (not making that up) are a soft target. But let’s think about something a bit more problematic and tempting. In my parish, one of our youth (a great kid) was telling me about attending a Bible study through a parachurch ministry with some friends. I was excited to hear this! But then he told me they read a single verse of Scripture and then talked about how it’s tough being in high school. Would you do that with your favorite books, say, The Lord of the Rings? Instead, how can we get women, men, and children to arrive at a deeper understanding of the scriptural narrative and then see themselves within that narrative — like Sam Gamgee who realizes that all the old stories are true and that he’s got a part to play in the story.
- How do our evangelism strategies point people to Christ and awaken within them a hunger for more? That is, how do they point to the unfathomable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8), so that those hearing the message would want to know and follow the Lord Jesus? How can we give good milk that will awaken a hunger for real meat? How do we set the table?
In other words, are we communicating? Do we really want to be heard? Or is it just a table for our friends, or worse, a table for one?