Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Christianity: Movement, Organization, Community, or Institution?

Because the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church uses the phrase “The Jesus Movement,” the phrase is catching on around the Church.  I am glad because “The Millennial Goals” and “The Five Marks of Mission” are phrases that have not communicated such energy.  However, the phrase raises a number of questions.  I think the most important one is whether Christianity is fundamentally a Movement, an Organization, a Community, or an Institution?  Of course, historically one can argue that it is all of these things because a religion that has been around for a couple of thousand years would have all these dynamics in it.  The phrase becomes more important for me when applied to the current situation in The Episcopal Church.

When Bishop Michael Curry was elected Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Church was in serious trouble.  Despite loyalist, particularly Progressive ones, trying to spin an optimistic view, the numbers told a more critical story.  The number of members, attendance, and congregations were all trending down.  On top of a historic 30 year decline of 1/3 of our membership by 2000, since 2000 we have lost another 1/3 of our membership.  Significantly, the major discussion and debate in the year previous to Bishop Curry’s election was over restructuring which was really a kinder way of saying downsizing. 

Bishop Curry seemed to instinctively realize that the problems facing TEC were not in adapting to these historical trends, but in infusing new life, new vision, and positive leadership.  Like any new visionary leader, he brought change in both perspective and in language.   Here is where the phrase The Jesus Movement becomes significant.  It communicates two significant and important truths to Church members.

First, Bishop Curry is reminding us that we are about Jesus and not just good intentions, progressive politics, and inclusion.  By his own account, he learned of this Jesus from his grandmother, and he has never forgotten that the Church and its mission are inseparable from the person, work, teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is from this Jesus that we draw our identity, our purpose, and by His Spirit, the power to accomplish his work of redemption and reconciliation. 

Second, by this phrase he states clearly that the mission of the Church and its organization and institutional life are inseparable.  The fundamental problems facing TEC are not about our General Convention structures, nor our low birth rate, nor our aging membership, nor our lack of gender inclusiveness, nor our loss of mainline status, our problems are fundamentally theological and missiological.  By re-phrasing our identity as a movement, Bishop Curry has changed our paradigm.  This is what a revitalization leader has to do, redefine reality, and all clergy called to such revitalization on a local level should take note and learn from him. 

In further blogs, I hope to extend a conversation about congregational revitalization, so I will leave that last statement hanging, because I want to address the question about a Movement versus an Organization, Community or Institution.  Many years ago, one of my favorite history professors said something, almost in passing, that I have never forgotten.  It is this:

The history of almost every organization or institution whether it is an Empire, a Country, a Political Organization or even a Corporation is the same.  Namely, people discover that they have a common experience or concern.  They gather to draw from one another and start what we would call a Movement.  This Movement generates leaders.  Over time, these leaders create structure and organization.  This Organization creates hierarchy and this hierarchy then generates over time a bureaucracy.  Finally, this bureaucracy creates rules and regulations to assure that the experience that created the Movement is controlled and suppressed. 

He went on to note that this is the history of the most Empires, the Roman Catholic Church, the Communist Party, and will be the history of The United States.  The only thing that can delay this inevitable process for any organization or institution is the leaders’ ability to reinfuse and recapture the essence of the Movement often expressed within a new context.

I believe the history and continual viability of the Church rests the multitude of leaders and movements that have happened within the life of the Church.  When you read the history of Benedict, Francis, or Wesley for examples, you are reading about movements initially held in suspicion by the hierarchy and its bureaucracy. 

The Anglican Church can be seen as a part of the Protestant Movement.  Within Anglicanism, the Evangelical Awakening, the Oxford Movement, and the Social Gospel Movement can all be seen as movements within the organization to rekindle the initial flame and life of a now decaying institution concerned primarily with its own organizational life and institutional survival instead of its mission.  One could say, I would certainly say it, that Anglicanism itself represents an umbrella Organization under which a number of sub-movements and their adherents exist.  Until 2003, I would claim that TEC was a Church that held together at least 6 sub-movements that had generated new life at some point in our Community. 

I would suggest that if everyone reading this thought about it, he or she would realize that our own identity is made to some degree by various movements that have influenced and framed our life.  For any Episcopalian, this means movements in and outside the Church.  I know that I am and remain an Episcopalian because Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Progressives have all had, brace yourself, a positive influence on my life, and as a Southerner, I have also been deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. 

Sydney Ahlstrom of Yale said that one cannot tell the history of Christianity in America by way of denominations, but rather by way of the leaders and movements that have touched each denomination.  Some denominations formed in the last 150 years owe their very existence to one of these leaders or movements. 

Will Bishop Curry’s attempt at reinfusing our calcifying and decaying organization result in revitalization?  It is certainly too early to know.  This one thing, however, is true.  If TEC will have a future, it must begin with Jesus and have his mission and ministry at the center.  If Bishop Curry can help accomplish this, he will have accomplished something significant. 

Remember this; revitalization for Christians in never merely about structure, programs, or strategies.  It will involve these things, but it is first about Jesus and his movement.  All else is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  This is as true on the local level as it is on the Denominational level. 

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