There’s a fair bit of hand-wringing these days about the general state of the Episcopal Church. We’re getting smaller, as everyone knows—though some sources tell us not to worry so much about this, and others actually see it as an advantage. There is, I understand, a “Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church,” and they recently shared a letter with the Church outlining their massive—and largely structural—task. Many parishes are test-driving “seeker services,” and anything labeled “emergent” is supposed to help bring folks in the doors. Much of this is good and useful, insofar as it brings the question of evangelism to the fore.
But it occurred to me, as I washed dishes after Morning Prayer one day last week, that most of our efforts and new resources are profoundly wrongheaded. In fact, the Book of Common Prayer is the best evangelism tool we have—and that is primarily because it is not an evangelism tool. The Prayer Book is not a scheme or a system or a redesign or a clever new way to engage the culture. It is an invitation to authenticity, a blueprint for building a life. Prayer Book worship is really not all that interested in welcoming people or bringing them in the doors. That’s not what it’s for. And that’s why it is our last, best hope.
The Prayer Book is for the worship of Almighty God. Prayer Book worship is about shaping the assembled Body of Christ—and the lives of individual Christians within that Body—around the God who has revealed himself to us. That’s what the calendar of the Church Year accomplishes, beginning in Advent with the double-barreled promise of Christ’s coming, and then telling the story of his birth, baptism, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and empowering gift of the Holy Spirit, all peppered and enlivened and encouraged with the tales and prayers of the saints. That’s what the daily reading of the Psalms—the ancient prayer book of the Jewish people and the Christian Church, and the heart’s core of Morning and Evening Prayer—accomplishes, reflecting God’s self-revelation in all the victories, vanquishments, vagaries, and vacillations of human life. That’s what the unending rhythm of the Holy Eucharist accomplishes, in every season gathering the Church as a holy offering before the throne of grace, and then refreshing, renewing, and transforming us through God’s self-offering in the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s what the varied Pastoral Offices accomplish—in Baptism and Confirmation, in Marriage and Thanksgiving for a Child, in the Ministration to the Sick and the Burial of the Dead—all showing forth the light of God’s grace reflected in the milestones and moments of the lives he has drawn to himself.
[Derek Olsen has written extensively and eloquently on the shape, scope, and spirituality of the various Prayer Book liturgies in a series of blog posts at haligweorc.wordpress.com. His insights continue to broaden and deepen my thoughts in all these matters.]
In the Book of Common Prayer, all of this is profoundly God-oriented. Women and men are drawn into these patterns, practices, and stories like planets orbiting a star. But the Prayer Book is always fixed on the star itself: the brightness of God’s light shining at the center of the story, glorified in every pattern and practice, and glimmering in every person drawn within its ken.
Unfortunately, many parishes treat this God-ward focus as a liability and an embarrassment. To think of all the ways and times that I have seen Prayer Book services tweaked, touched-up, explained, or excused because of perceived challenges to potential visitors! The trouble is, visitors (potential or actual) do not want us to try to anticipate their possible problems. They want us to be ourselves. That, in turn, allows them to be themselves. And that takes us back to something I said earlier: the Prayer Book is an invitation to authenticity.
“Authenticity” is a very popular watchword right now. I’ve heard it said by folks who know, or who ought to know, or who claim to know (and sometimes those three are one) that for people in their 20s and 30s, authenticity is all that matters. Truth claims and doctrine are largely “out,” and radical authenticity is “in.”
I don’t go in whole-hog for that narrative. (Experience tells me that people actually want a lot more doctrine than we’re typically willing to give.) But I think that it touches on something important. We can no longer depend on folks joining our congregations because they agree with our positions (theological, social, environmental, political, or otherwise), or because they have always been Episcopalian. Potential newcomers, seekers, searchers, and the spiritual-but-not-religious are going to be more interested in who we show ourselves to be through our actions than what we claim to be through our words.
The reason for that shift, I think, is simple supply and demand: authenticity is valued because it is so scarce. People of my generation (and certainly people younger than my generation) are accustomed to conducting multiple lives on multiple platforms at the same time. They know how to maintain one persona on Facebook, another in their blog, another on their Twitter feed, and various others in face-to-face interactions with various groups of friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Inauthenticity—or perhaps, to put it more charitably, “fractured authenticity”—is their stock-in-trade. And they can smell it a mile away.
So what will these bloodhounds for inauthenticity think if they step into a church (and that’s already a very big “if”) and find that that church doesn’t follow its own rules, doesn’t use its own material, and doesn’t behave as if it’s doing anything of much importance? What will these eager, incisive people (who are much better at tweaking and trimming their identities to suit new contexts than any institution ever could be) think of a church attempting—in its lumbering, bureaucratic, committee-speak way—to seem hip, relevant, worldly, and “with-it”? Pity would be the best response we can hope for. Contempt might, I think, be more likely.
But what if, instead of pandering and toadying and trying really, really hard to get them to like us, we were faithful to the Prayer Book? What if we let the amazing resource moldering in our pew-racks shape us? What if it oriented our worship, our fellowship, and our life together—not just Sunday-to-Sunday, and not just the bits we like, but all of it, every day? What if we turned our eyes away from the people who may or may not be coming to worship—if we stopped worrying about what they will think if they do come, or whether they will like us if they happen to wander in, or whether they will feel welcome if they should decide to drop by—and instead let the Prayer Book fix the eyes of our hearts on the liturgy’s sole focus: the God who has come, the God who is present, the God who has welcomed us?
I tend to think that this would, paradoxically, transform our interaction with visitors, and for the better. Worrying less about the people we want to welcome would actually give us something to welcome them into, instead of begging them to join us for a shape-shifting, chameleonic, “just tell me what you want me to be!” experience.
That would open us up to the real possibility of rejection—the real (and, perhaps, likely) chance that many folks would decide that our way of being and doing in response to God’s self-revelation just doesn’t click for them. But how much better, as the saying goes, to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not? Infinitely more valuable than the chimerical quest to please every visitor would be the deep authenticity that is the fruit of a life oriented toward the Living God!
That authenticity, a mere by-product of the Prayer Book’s resolute God-ward gaze, is what makes evangelists: people who go into the world with news—triumphant news—to proclaim in every deed and in every word. Evangelism, real evangelism, is not a question of welcoming but of announcing—of showing forth. That’s what the Prayer Book equips us to do, by molding our lives around what God has done and is doing—by forming us around the Good News that God has drawn hear to us in the Incarnation; the Good News that God has conquered Sin and Death by the Cross of Calvary and the Resurrection of Jesus; the Good News that God is at work in our world even now, through the flawed, human, sometimes-inauthentic-and-yet-Holy-Ghost-filled Body of Christ called the Church.
So let’s stop worrying, and start worshiping. Let’s stop looking at what’s behind us—those open red doors at the west—wondering and worrying whether anyone is coming to church, and let’s start looking to what’s ahead of us—that glorious altar in the east, bright with the light of the rising sun—penitent, expectant, and joyful that the Lord of Glory comes to meet us—even us—in Word and Sacrament. And then, transformed by that encounter, confident in who and whose we are, let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Thanks be to God.