It’s no secret that the Episcopal Church is dying. No walls, no borders, no outcasts, she boasts, and if nothing is done she will be able to add, nobody.
The steep numerical decline of the Episcopal Church is comparable to that of the other theologically liberal mainline churches. As a conservative, it is tempting to gloat but some conservative denominations are shrinking too, albeit less precipitously.
America, as many have noted, is becoming increasingly irreligious. Human beings always seek meaning and purpose but far fewer American human beings seek these in religious institutions than once did. So spiritual paths proliferate while churches die.
Various strategies to reverse the trend are on offer. One solution favored by many is to construct worship experiences designed to reach certain demographics. This begins by answering questions like: Who do you want to reach? How do they dress? What are their music preferences? Where and what do they eat? How much money do they make? What sort of media do they enjoy? Once you’ve gathered the necessary data, you design a worship experience to attract the demographic. Of course, because this strategy depends upon creating a slick environment for a targeted group (usually upper middle class or wealthier), it often requires extensive technological support and thus costs quite a bit of money. The coffee shop, the stage design, the pre-sermon videos, the big screen and speakers will all burn deep holes in the parish pocketbook. Audio/visual technology alone, if you want to fit contemporary tastes (of whatever demographic), will consume a good chunk of your budget. And don’t think that your initial investment will last beyond a couple of years. Technology changes fast. Once you mount the media entertainment horse, staying on will mean more and more money. Yesteryear’s PowerPoint must give way to today’s giant LCD. And your fog machine, while impressive, cannot stand up by itself to the concert standard pyrotechnics of the big box church down the street. If you take this path and wish to survive, you must be willing to compete for just the right level of shininess. Relevance is a cruel taskmaster.
You should also be prepared to acknowledge that reaching out to an unchurched demographic with a fit-for-them worship experience may also mean that your sermon will need to fit as well. Few unchurched Harrys and Marys are prepared to sit through a thirty-minute exposition of a text of scripture no matter how grand the pyro. It may be that drawing such a crowd in such a way and retaining them will, in the end, cost you more than your budget.
The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, seems to have landed upon a more economical solution. Congregations do not need to invest vast sums in technology. There is a cheaper path toward cultural relevance: love. Love is love. That is the slogan of the day. If two people or three people or more of whatever sex or gender variety love one another and want to get married then, fine, love is love. Love is always good and must always be celebrated. Besides, love is a prominent theme in scripture too. Jesus speaks a great deal about it. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind” (Matthew 22:37) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). The Apostle John tells us that “God is love” (1st John 4:8). Put all this together and you have the makings of a cheap but simple strategy: preach love. Jesus came to love and tells you to love like he loves and if everyone just loves like Jesus loves the world will be full of love. Call it the Jesus movement. Add Michael Curry’s charismatic preaching and rallies with a tent revivalesque feel and there you have it, a religion that meets people where they are and gives them what they want.
This strategy too, of course, has its cost. For the love of which Jesus speaks and the love that our culture has embraced to be joined together as one flesh will require theological engineering. Love for God, according to Jesus, means that every fiber of your being, every ounce of your strength, every moment of your life will be given over to praising God’s glory and doing God’s will. And it gets worse. Jesus, being God, knows something about God’s will and he indicates that God’s will is revealed in the scriptures. That’s why he says things like, “If you love me you will keep my commandments…” (John 14:15) and, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-20). It turns out that there is no space in Jesus’ mind between love for God and obedience to the scriptures.
That raises two significant problems. The first is that the cultural ideation of love has very little to do with Jesus’ instructions to love. People who say “love is love” are usually talking about a feeling of affection and desire that has much more in common with eroticism or romantic attraction or perhaps even friendly affection, than what Jesus has in mind. So if you asked the average person on the street: do you love God? That person will more often than not consult his or her own feelings about God. Do I feel affection for him? He or she will not ask: Do I obey all of his commandments?
That leads to the second and far more serious problem. Because Jesus’ command to love God involves your whole being—your thoughts, words, and deeds aligned perfectly with God’s revealed will—it turns out that no one actually does what Jesus commands (Romans 3:10-20). The Michael Curry version of the Gospel which begins with “Love God” turns out, if we take Jesus’ definition of love to heart, to be very bad news. This love is a burden no one can possibly bear. And if it is the means by which one enters into the Kingdom of God, then we are all doomed (Galatians 3:10).
The situation does not get any better when you turn to “Love your neighbor.” Most, again, associate love with a feeling of desire, romance, or friendship. So, for example, suppose your friend is engaged to his same-sex lover and invites you to the wedding, what do you do? If love is a kind of affection then the love between your friend and his lover is just as legitimate as the love between a husband and a wife. Love is grand however it makes itself manifest. So you go. The two men clearly love each other and to decline the invitation would be unloving. Why on earth would you not want to go to such a wonderful event and even bake a cake for it?
But when Jesus says “love your neighbor” he doesn’t mean “have sex with your neighbor” or “desire a romantic relationship with your neighbor” or “feel friendly things about your neighbor” or even “do whatever will make your neighbor feel happy.” He means, commit yourself to always doing what is good for your neighbor. That’s the point of his command in Matthew 5:43-45, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Notice that the example Jesus uses for love is the Father who gives actual good things even to those who hate him. The good thing is, here, rain. He sustains the field and thus the lives of his enemies. Love is an action one takes for the good of the other.
The catch is that “good” for Jesus is, again, defined by God himself and is revealed to us in the bible. That’s why when Jesus speaks to the rich young ruler in Mark 10 about what it will take for him to inherit eternal life he points the young man to biblical commands: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19-20). Jesus does not simply just say “love your neighbor,” he tells the young man how this love is done; by obeying the scriptures.
Doing good for your neighbor then is not determined or defined by what you or I might feel to be good. It is determined by God and revealed in his word. Applying this to the hypothetical wedding case above, love would mean recognizing that your engaged gay friend has set himself in the path destruction, sealing a relationship that, unless he repents, will lead him to damnation (1st Corinthians 6:9). The love of Jesus would demand that you not go and celebrate such a thing, that you make it clear to your friend why you are not going to rejoice in his wrong-doing (1st Corinthians 13:6), and that you don’t actually bake that cake because you care for his soul. This may hurt your friend’s feelings but sometimes genuine love does that.
When Michael Curry defines love for neighbor, he gets it partly right: “Love makes room and space for the other to be. Love says let there be something besides me…As long as love just remains a sentiment – a feeling – everything I just said isn’t true. But when love moves from mere sentiment to commitment, to a deepened relationship, then we are talking about dynamite.”(as quoted by Jeff Walton)
This is true. Love does mean that you must make room for the other. Love is not merely a feeling. There is self-sacrifice, always, in genuine love. But when you delve deeper and find that Michael Curry’s love does not mean doing good for your-neighbor as scripture defines it, his theological engineering becomes more evident. He takes Jesus’ command to love, lops off the biblical definition of “good”, joins it to the secular notion that love is valid in its every manifestation, and calls his new thing the “Jesus movement”. Beyond the name, Jesus has nothing to do with it. Michael Curry nevertheless certainly does deliver a rousing sermon and, our culture being what it is, his Jesus movement may gain traction.
But this method of church growth also carries with it a heavy cost. You must present an impossibly burdensome law as the Gospel and then remove the burden by ignoring what the One who gave the law meant by it.
There is another option. Rather than collecting demographic data to design an expensive but relevant worship experience for a targeted group, rather than reworking biblical commands to make them appealing to an increasingly woke upper class’ notion of love, one could take the drastic step of preaching the law in all its fullness and the gospel in all its fullness and letting Jesus build his church just as he said that he would (Matthew 16:18). This is, after all, the means by which God changes hearts and rescues sinners. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” says Paul in Romans 10:17. “It pleased God by the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” he writes in 1st Corinthians 1:21. When Jesus asks the Twelve whether they too will desert him in John 6:67, Peter answers with his own question, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of life” (John 6:68). Jesus doesn’t correct him. He knows that his word never returns empty but accomplishes all that he intends for it to accomplish.
Believing that this true, that Jesus builds his church by justifying sinners through the proclamation of his word by which he brings them to repentance and faith, will mean that whether your church is liturgical or non-liturgical, contemporary or traditional, you will proclaim God’s law: that one must love God with every fiber of one’s being and love one’s neighbor as oneself. But then, because no one on earth keeps this law and because by breaking this law all human beings stand condemned before God’s throne, you will proclaim the gospel. God sent his Son to take on human nature, to be made like us in every way except for sin. He obeyed the law in every way on our behalf. That obedience took him to the cross where he stretched out his arms for the love of his Father and for the love of his faithless Bride, to bear her iniquities in his own body and soul and to die in her place. Then, on the third day, having dealt with sin which leads to death, he overcame death and rose victoriously from the tomb in a body shorn of mortality. Forty days afterward, he ascended to heaven where he sits at the right hand of the father, reigning over heaven and earth, interposing his precious blood for our sake and interceding on our behalf.
Jesus promises that if you will acknowledge your sin and guilt and turn to him for mercy, he will receive you. All the benefits of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension will be yours. Are you disobedient? Jesus has fulfilled the law in your place and his obedience stands as if it were yours. Are you guilty? Jesus lifts the shame and guilt from your shoulders and bears it himself on his cross. Are you dying? Yes, you are. Christ promises to give you a kind of life that begins now and never ends so that while your body is wasting away you will be renewed day by day. Do you need daily help in your struggle against sin and despair? Jesus, your Advocate in Heaven intercedes for you day by day. And then, one day, when Jesus returns he will raise your body up, made new like his, and you will never die again.
Economically, preaching the gospel will cost you nothing. Culturally, it will cost you relevance and appeal. Nobody wants to face the deadliness of personal sin. You will not be popular. The number of people you have in your pews may, indeed, decline as the west hurtles toward the abyss. But Jesus will use his word to save sinners and give them eternal life and that is the only sort of church growth that, in the end, will matter at all.