Want to see some illustrations of the reasons why the mainline churches are in trouble? Look no farther than the story in the Roanoke Times today about a visit by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefforts-Schori to southwestern Virginia:
Calling for economic evangelism and political advocacy, the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, elected leader of the nation’s 2.7 million Episcopal Church members, roused an audience of her denomination’s regional leaders in Roanoke on Saturday.
Reason #1: the confusion of evangelism with social activism and political advocacy. It shouldn’t be hard to tell the difference, but for some they are all the same thing. Writing a letter to a congresscritter stating your opinion that food stamp allowances should be raised is the same as witnessing to the tranforming impact of the lif, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And Jefferts Schori urges a roll-up-your-sleeves brand of Christianity that’s big on persuading church members to volunteer in community service, dig deeper into their pockets to furnish food for the world’s impoverished and nudge politicians to provide more help for the hungry.
Her activist message resonated with Southwest Virginia pastors such as Vince Carroll, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Richlands. “She reminds me of something the Apostle Paul said, ‘The poor will always be with you.’ But you damn well better do something to help them out.”
Reason #2: ignorance of Scripture even among the clergy. It was, of course, Jesus who said “the poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8). This isn’t just a matter of not being able to remember addresses, either. The expression comes in the context of a woman (John says it was Mary of Bethany) anointing Jesus with expensive perfume, which others objected to because the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But Jesus rebuked them, both for ignoring the “beautiful thing” she had done to Him and for missing the prophetic significance of the act, which was to anoint Him ahead of time for burial. In fact, while there’s no doubt that Jesus highly valued ministry to the poor, the message f this particular passage is exactly the opposite of the one that Rev. Carroll assigns to it. Then again, if you’re going to decide what the teaching and mission of the church is based on the New York Times editorial page, I don’t suppose it really matter.
There’s nothing esoteric about her take on theology. “It’s refreshing to hear her put it in very straightforward terms,” said Deborah Hunley, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Roanoke’s Old Southwest neighborhood. “What we are as a church is defined by the good we actually do for others.”
Reason #3: failure to grasp the proper mission of the church. The church is not defined by “the good we actually do for others” (that would be the Lions Club or the local food pantry). The church is defined by its faithful relationship with the Lord who constitutes it as His body. As such, our mission is not to “do good,” our mission is to carry our the work that God has assigned us, much of which (for instance, witnessing to the truth of the gospel, making disciples, teaching them Jesus’ commandments, baptizing them–you know, Great Commission stuff) the world doesn’t consider good, and in fact positively repudiates.
In her address, [Schori] barely mentioned the traditional church mission of saving souls. Instead, she zeroed in on the need for “social justice ministry,” specifically to rally to such causes as improving health care, education and job opportunities. Further, she encouraged church leadership to press politicians into helping Third World nations develop economically — plugging debt reduction and fair trade.
Reason #4: mistaking the church for a political party. What Schori wants these people to be is Democratic Party activists, not Episcopalians. In her vision of what the church and its mission are, Schori has traded in the glorious vision of the Kingdom of God for the earthly (and in truth, miserly) vision of a government program. If that’s all the church is, I’d just as soon go to work for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or Labor or Education. The government’s pension program is better than the church’s.