Kent Anderson posted some great thoughts this week on the temptation many of us struggle with which he calls “the arrogance of the present.” He comments on the ways that authors and speakers and leaders often speak to and about the church with a great amount of condemnation for how things have looked and been done up until now. He concludes that, for many, there is a perspective of “if only the church had been as enlightened as we clearly are now…”
His words resonated with me, and I considered the many times I have grown annoyed by certain authors’ tones that have seemed to me to carry so much arrogance and derision. I have also lost patience with many of my peers who seem to have so much time for critique and condemnation when it comes to the state of the church (leaving very little time for actual investment in relationships and service). It is not uncommon to hear the litanies of how the church doesn’t measure up to someone’s ideals and then to realize that the person doing the complaining has done little to get involved, build relationships or serve.
Being around Fuller so much the last five years, Doug and I have had the great privilege of meeting and learning from some incredible people who are offering significant critiques of the church, as well as laying out alternatives to the way things have always been done. And many of these folks do so with deep humility and generous spirits. I think of Dallas Willard who can write and say some of the most pointed critiques, and yet who never comes across as arrogant (to me, at least). Then there are others (and of course I will not name them) who simply ooze the superiority of the new.
One piece of my own formation as a minister that I see now as so crucial was the year and a half that I spent in Spokane, Washington, immediately after leaving Chicago. When I moved to Spokane, I immediately went to the local Covenant church which was located in the center of downtown. Within blocks of First Covenant were all of the other “First” churches; and lots of SRO hotels and homeless people and a fairly depressed community. The congregation was small, mostly elderly, and clearly a reflection of the radical demographic shifts of so many cities (a tide that is now reversing). I met a kindred spirit there, a Whitworth graduate who was serving as their youth ministry intern, and we spent the next year serving and talking and praying and debating in ministry together.
We had all of the passion and idealism of our age, voracious appetites for theology and the scriptures, education and exposure to every new church trend: and there we were, in this little church filled with some of the most gracious and faithful people I have ever known, this church that would quickly fail any test of coolness, and it was in that context that all of the great things we were reading and thinking and studying received a bit of much-needed humility.
And while I can still be fiercely idealistic and hard-headed and critical when I think and talk and write about the church, I truly believe that that little congregation in downtown Spokane gave me some perspective on who God uses and the surprising ways that God can choose to work (even among the most unlikely and unglamorous) that has never left me and for that I am grateful. When I think about peers in seminary who went through their education without having a church “home”, relying on seminary and random internship experiences alone for the bulk of their ministerial formation, I shudder. I think that some of the trends we see of seminary grads lasting so few years in vocational ministry perhaps reflect that formational “homelessness”. All of those new ideas from shiny books by shiny authors, mean very little when divorced from real contexts of congregations made up of real people in communities with real histories. And when things fizzle, it is natural for the enlightened seminarian to give up on those communities that “just don’t get it”.
We need to do a better job moving through change TOGETHER. Allowing the young to lead; permitting the prophetic voices in our midst to speak; embracing new vision and direction that can come at a cost. And we need to do this in an “appreciative inquiry” sort of way where the experiences and narratives of the past are recognized, honored and built upon, not simply discarded as uncool.