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Thinking Out Loud

Redefining the Church's Relevance - Part 3

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 29, 2016

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16)

Church's Relevance 3Recently the Church of England published its "eight social media commandments," a set of guidelines to influence parish priests and other church leaders to re-direct their energies and efforts, to become more digitally savvy, to tweet, blog, use "Slack" to facilitate discussions, create stop-motion videos, and employ apps to make their churches more relevant to the digital generation. The church's parish leaders are told that the church simply must embrace the digital revolution or risk irrelevance and extinction. (John Bingham, “The Gif of God: The Church of England issues eight social media commandments," The Daily Telegraph, August 3, 2016. Accessed October 12, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/03/the-gif-of-god-church-of-england-issues-eight-social-media-comma/.)

While I appreciate the many uses for the digital tools that are multiplying around us, to communicate better and more broadly, to learn more about the world around us, and to keep in touch with one another, I find the assessment of the Daily Telegraph article both superficial and ultimately self-defeating. Surely, the people of our world deserve a better response from us. And, surely, we have something better to offer.

A few years ago, I began going to Gethsemane Abbey regularly and frequently for silent retreats. It has become increasingly more difficult to book a retreat in the past couple of years because so many people want to go to the abbey. Protestants, Catholics, all sorts and conditions of human beings are making their way to this Cistercian abbey near Bardstown, Kentucky, where there is no Wi-Fi, no television nor radio, and where drinking the coffee, until quite recently, was an act of penance. The services and daily prayer are utterly lacking in any sense of performance. And many of the people who retreat there have never heard of Gethsemane's most renowned monk, Thomas Merton.

All we do there is pray, read, meditate, and try to silence the voices inside our heads to match the silence outside. We are attentive to God, to the quiet presence of others, and to all the stuff deep inside of us from which a world of noisy distractions ordinarily keeps us from dealing. As that stuff inevitably rises up, one makes one’s way to the chapel to be reminded of God's forgiveness, or to the garden to walk silently the Stations of the Cross, or out into the stillness of the Kentucky hills to gain some perspective.

The Psalms are applied like healing balm to tired and broken souls all throughout the day. The Eucharist is present daily to nourish. The Gospel is evoked again and again. And the silence, solitude and reality of a community of fellow pilgrims support us in our journey inward and journey outward. Gradually, during the years of disciplined prayer, contemplation, mindfulness training and meditation as well as regular extended silent retreats in the context of a permanent Christian community that practices hospitality, I have come to feel like a prodigal who has too long fed on the swine's scraps while a feast awaited me in my Father's house.

William James, the philosopher and psychologist, in reflecting on what standards we might use to evaluate the relative truthfulness of a religious faith, articulated a perspective that has become more and more convincing to me the older I have gotten. The authenticity of a faith, according to James, should be judged by the character and quality of the lives of those who practice it. "By their fruits ye shall know them," writes James, "not by their roots." If a faith is good and true, we will know it by the results it achieves in the lives of its adherents. (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, Modern Library edition, 1994, p. 24.)

In other words, "Who" we are, the character of our humanity lived out in practice, is the ultimate litmus test for the truthfulness of our faith.

But what if we fail actually to embody or convey a faith in the God revealed in Christ in our manic attempts to appeal to a culture?

This certainly is possible. Then all we do as a church is replicate among ourselves more and more of the same culture that surrounds us on every side: a culture of consumption that is eating us up; a culture of fame that damns the quiet good in its rush to recognize the most visible and vulgar; a culture that celebrates violence and vengeance, and equates kindness with weakness; a culture obsessed with the trivial and the superficial; a culture impatient with anything intellectually profound, and mocks prudence and virtue and wisdom.

It is possible that the church could, maybe without realizing the gravity of what it is doing, exchange the gospel that seeks to restore to us our full humanity for some life-depleting message that only manages to keep step with the culture in which we live. And, if that happens, sadly our fruit will tell.

Sometimes what our culture most needs is not what it demands. We need to have confidence enough in the Gospel not to give up on it just because others don't "get it."

Whether or not this Gospel is what they demand, it is the source of life abundant. The God to whom we are called to be relevant has so much to offer us and everyone else in our contemporary culture, if we have the courage to follow.

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