Monday, October 22, 2007

Theological Generosity

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18: 1-8

“be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable”

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

It seems like I have been reading it forever, but I haven’t yet finished the book Christianity for the Rest of Us, by Diana Butler Bass. It’s a fine book about how churches that don’t follow current popular models of church growth or organization are nonetheless thriving. What a lot of these churches have in common is that they are focused not only on growth, but also on the care of souls who are already evangelized. These are places where people who are already Christian, or familiar with the basics of Christianity but have concerns or doubts about how it is currently practiced in American culture can come and express their doubts, and serve the God they know to be true.

She did a survey of a number of churches, nationally, across many different denominations but all Protestant, and all in what is now called the “mainline” traditions, to differentiate them from “evangelical” churches. Many of the people who are in the pews of these churches are people who were perhaps raised in traditions that were once a lot more rigid, expected a lot more often that its members would toe the line. She found that these churches all had some things in common. Many of them were praying churches with different groups that met all week long, in different styles. Some held regular healing services, their worship services grew naturally out of the interested congregants’ interests and talents (none had the cookie cutter praise band, for instance, but instead consisted of the people and the instruments of the people willing to be there).

They were churches that really seemed to be homes for people to explore their faith, in whatever ways that they felt drawn to, rather than show up to church and be spoon-fed their faith.

Bass used a phrase that jumped out at me: theological generosity. These churches had, in a way distinctive to each church, developed ways to be generous to each other and to the strangers whom would be invited or would just walk in cold into their midst. Now, don’t get me wrong—they are orthodox churches. None of them were spiritual Exploration Societies, they are all still churches that in some way identify themselves in Christian ways. It just seemed like, as Bass described them, they seemed to have taken Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” rather seriously.

It’s as if they trusted God and Jesus to be able to withstand whatever study that was applied to them, and that their call to serve Christ also included giving room to people who thought differently. God is at the center, but not everyone needs to use the same map to get there. It is this theological generosity that makes them thrive, according to Bass.

In other words, they could say that they proclaimed their message persistently. They practiced and developed their style of being church in times favorable and unfavorable. Paul’s urging to Timothy to be persistent in proclaiming the message in times favorable and unfavorable is very much the same idea. They developed a practice of prayer, of being together as a church, of worship, that differed in some ways from how many churches spent the 90’s trying to evangelize.

Many books about how to do church out there say that if you want to grow as a church, more authority has to be given to the Bible, and to the pastor. The Bible needed to be interpreted as simply as possible, and where that didn’t make sense, that meant that the reader either didn’t have enough faith, or that God had not made clear what He intended you to know. What they didn’t talk about in those books was that there are many people out there who believe that the Bible is important, but it is also more complex than that, and that part of our journey to grow in Christ includes the study of the parts of the Bible we don’t understand. And as more and more churches went to a simpler understanding of the Bible, to a more authority driven way of being a minister, it became harder and harder for some people to practice their faith. Their community got smaller and smaller, and disappeared in some areas.

Some people left. It is true, that some people leave churches not because they are angry about how money is used, not because of some black and white disagreement over some point of Bible, but instead because the practice of the faith isn’t complex for them. They know that there are areas of knowledge that aren’t known, and they are comfortable with that gray area existing—it is that challenge to know Christ in new, not easy ways that drives their faith. Some of the ones who were persistent found congregations of people, almost refuges or oases. Then they found these special, different kinds of churches that practiced theological generosity. They came and found that their questions, their doubts weren’t sins, but were just journeys that were in mid-path.

Jesus told a parable about needing to pray not lose heart. He spoke of an old woman who asked for justice again and again and again, being an absolute pest about it, until this disrespectful, egotistical judge finally gave her what she wanted because he didn’t want to hear her anymore. God is no unjust judge, so how much more will be given what we ask for if we are persistent with God? If we are persistent, and as Paul tells Timothy, if we proclaim the message in season and out, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, if we make ourselves to be pests, because God is a loving God, we will get what it is that we really want. It may not be what we ask for, but it will be what we want. William Barclay says it this way:
Often a (parent) has to refuse the request of a child, because (they) know that what the child asks would hurt rather than help. God is like that. We do not know what is to happen in the next hour, let alone the next week, or month, or year. Only God sees time whole, and, therefore, only God knows what is good for us in the long run. That is why Jesus said we must never be discouraged in prayer. . . . We will never grow weary in prayer and our faith will never falter if, after we have offered to God our prayers and requests, we add the perfect prayer, “Thy will be done.”
What is true now is that there are now churches who have grown strong and developed new ways of being church that are outside of the mega-church model. They are vital, they may even be growing. They may be messy at times, but they are faithful. But they have come through a time that has been unfavorable, and they have not lost heart.

Let us not lose heart either. There are things about our lives together, and your lives as a congregation before I joined you, that grew faithfully and makes us distinctive now. Remembering them, continuing to do them faithfully as we have done, being persistent in them, even as we seek God’s will and heart even more will be the proper response to God.

And as we do so, we should of course practice theological generosity with each other.

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