Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Renewal Enterprise (2 of 4)

Issues in Renewal Movements

1. People in the legacy denominations who desire renewal often have trouble articulating exactly what they mean. The term is employed to indicate distinct (though often companionable) things. The first, and by far the most significant usage is sometimes called revival; specifically, there is a desire for widespread repentance for sin, for a rejection of error, and for a rebirth of passion for and loyalty to Jesus Christ – as He is revealed in the Bible. Traditional Christians are saddened by the fact that large segments of their denominations reject historic and biblical Christian doctrines that those denominations once affirmed. It is worse when official statements of their denominations, products offered by their publishing houses, activities of their officials either contain such departures or are deliberately vague enough to allow for them.

The second usage of renewal describes institution polity correction. This involves two things. The first is an attempt to limit the corruption that has become widespread at all institutional levels of many legacy denominations. Corruption in this sense includes failure to adhere to denominational policy, abuse of power, one-sided application of discipline, knowingly conveying false or misleading information to church members and others, and dishonest and self-serving readings of denominational policies to justify desired outcomes. This type of corruption has, through long decades of habit, become the rule rather than the exception. The second is an attempt to more strictly codify behaviors and doctrines that were once affirmed, that generally follow the plain meaning of institutional regulations (such as confessions or claims to adhere to Scripture, for instance), and that more accurately reflect the theological tradition of the denomination. Historically these behavioral and doctrinal standards were the overwhelming norm; currently they are not, and the trend is against them.

The third (though much less frequent usage) has to do with secular politics. This is usually only mentioned in the context of particular political activisms members find morally repugnant. The legacy denominations have tended (as it happened) to reflexively and entirely uncritically endorse left wing secular political stances. These stances have often been far removed from the beliefs of majorities of members of said denominations. Some traditional Christians envision an equally politically verbose church – with the sole difference being what stands are endorsed. I have little patience for that as it strikes me rather strongly as often replacing one evil with another. A second, far more defensible position involves requiring more fair and modest political pronouncements from legacy denominations. There should be no equation between the secular political preferences of denominational insiders and “God’s politics”. There should be no pretence of ‘speaking prophetically’. The holder of this view believes the legacy denominations should abandon their so far ubiquitous policy of attempting to bend society to their will by force.

The situation is complicated by the fact that individuals are often passionately engaged in specific issues. Not all of these are held in lockstep; not all self-identified progressives agree on all generally progressive issues, and not all self-identified conservatives agree on all generally conservative issues. It is inevitable that people will be engaged in some issues more than they are in others – we are not all alike. However, this can create a climate of confusion in which conservative or traditional Christianity happens to become over-identified with specific issues that may or may not be important. (I grant this is often unfair) but this opens traditional Christians to charges of selective interpretation. Personally, I would rather see any issue not inherent to Christianity sidelined in renewal movements, than that these create arbitrary obstacles to renewal. Having said that, I am also compelled to observe that far more issues are inherent to Christian teaching than many would like to believe.

I can think of nothing that would be more helpful to those who desire renewal within the mainline denominations than for them to
very carefully and thoroughly consider what exactly they seek as specifically as possible, and for them to clearly articulate that vision. Once a specific vision is understood much more thought can be given to formulating a coherent and detailed plan of action. This may take a variety of forms, but renewalists need to stop working at cross-purposes because of strategic differences. I say this would be beneficial for four reasons. First, there is tremendous waste of effort when a person works toward goals he or she does not clearly understand. Second, I believe it is important to make sure that one’s goals are worthy, and I don’t believe this can be done without considerable evaluation. Third, it is in some senses unfair to progressives and to members who haven’t thought through their positions to not provide full disclosure. And fourth, renewal depends in part on persuasion; no one was ever persuaded by vague, empty words. Yes, people are often confused and dissuaded from opposing a particular course of action through such vagueness; and yes, people have often been reaffirmed in what they already wanted to believe or do by meaningless drivel – but no one alive was ever inspired to actually do anything difficult or worthwhile by vagueness, imprecision, or substanceless flowery language.

2. Renewal movements are often considerably marred by the role of personalities and differences in strategies advocated. Too often, rancorous and hostile disagreements divide those whose goals should, in theory at least, be companionable. In fact, some of the most unpleasant exchanges I have witnessed in a mainline denominational setting have occurred between people who all claimed to seek renewal; these disagreements occurred over what was the correct strategic action to take. It should go without saying to anyone legitimately interested in genuine renewal: this should not be.

That there should be differences of opinion and approach is unavoidable; that these should result in hostility and lack of cooperation not only can, but must be avoided. The differences I have noticed tend to concern the who, the how, and the what.

The who: Some renewal groups cater to clergy; some are more focused on laypeople. Some are made up of institutional insiders – or as close as ‘conservative’, renewal-minded Christians can get to insider status; others are clearly outsider movements. Some involve large and influential churches; others are more attractive to small and mid-size churches. Some enjoy significant funding; others operate from a position of scarcity. And then there are the individuals – kind of loose cannons in the legacy denominations that aren’t really involved with any official group at all. I’m not criticizing this phenomenon outright; I’m sure it’s a good thing that there are varied people interested in renewal. But I have to note that both individual egos and the tendency to surround ourselves predominately with those who make us comfortable are often counterproductive.

The how: Strategies for renewal are diverse. This is partly a function of who is involved. For instance, insiders tend to prefer ‘off-the-record’ conversations; they tend to be inclined to share their concerns in a friendly manner with denominational officials (i.e. other insiders); they tend to like informal agreements that ‘fix’ whatever problems they perceive. Insiders also tend to value the relationships and access they enjoy within denominational organizations; therefore, they are usually disinclined to raise public awareness of problems, to use hostile rhetoric, or to take actions that have consequences that damage relationships and access. However people may regard this, I have witnessed it work effectively. Its chief merit is that on some issues a ‘conservative’ person can possibly get results – at least until those who favor the ‘progressive’ trajectory have fully consolidated their power. Outsiders, on the other hand, do not have access to this strategy. They tend to be much more vocal and critical; they tend to depend on raising public awareness; they have no relationships or access to preserve; and they tend to profoundly distrust what they view as ‘backroom deals’. Divergence in strategy also appears to be partly related to the failure to articulate strategies and goals. Additionally, it is a natural result of the fact that different people have different ideas. (I’m not going to enumerate them here, but offhand, I think most of us have seen at least a half-dozen different approaches taken.) Let me be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with renewalists taking different approaches depending on their circumstances; but in a lot of cases these approaches undercut one another, and, quite frankly, the people involved seemed to sell each other out.

The what: As I observed earlier, different renewalists have different issues that are important to them and different things they would like to see happen. This is perfectly legitimate. The problem that comes up is this: when one focuses exclusively on one or two issues, there is a temptation to work at those issues to the detriment of other initiatives. Worse, there is a temptation when working toward one’s own goals to make agreements or take actions that actually hinder the goals of other people who desire renewal. I would point out that, while not all issues are equally important or equally qualify as renewalist, in some cases people are passionate about particular issues because they see those issues’ significance in a way that others do not. Whatever the case, I can guarantee you that no one wants to see an issue about which he or she is passionate become that issue that ends up getting orphaned by the rest of the ‘renewal movement’.

I make no pretense at having an answer for renewalists, but I can say that
this state of visible disunity within renewal movements is damaging. It is inefficient; it invites ridicule from anti-renewalists; it turns off the very people to whom the renewal movement is trying to appeal; and it lends credibility to the clich├ęd charge that conservative and traditional Christians are inherently schismatic. Since most conservative and traditional Christians maintain that we find our unity in shared beliefs, in our common commit to Jesus Christ as he is revealed in Scripture, and in the Holy Spirit – who always lifts up Jesus Christ, it is rather disturbing if we demonstrate divisions and quarrels. If renewalists can put aside ego and non-essential things to demonstrate that unity that should typify believers in Jesus Christ, they may find their efforts to lift up faithfulness to Jesus to be far more successful.

3. Those intent on renewal are either unaware of or choosing to ignore the full extent of the problems in the mainline denominational organizations. Renewal groups tend to be reactive; a disinterested observer can easily forecast events that seem frequently to catch most of the renewal movement by complete surprise. There seems to be a failure to understand the situation as it actually is. Instead many groups embark on strategies that might have been appropriate responses to events ten or fifteen years ago – that might have worked before the situation in the legacy denominations reached its current proportions. The vast majority of actions that renewal groups take have already been preemptively countered by anti-renewalists. There seems to be a fundamental belief among renewalists that things could not progress farther along the trajectory they oppose; and they seem to be in a near constant state of shock. Once the shock wears off they move quickly through a “wait and see” phase that is almost immediately followed by the choice to accept or ignore.

There are a variety of reasons for this, but I suspect one of the most significant factors is that those who actively work for renewal are too close to the situation to view it accurately. These often have invested much time, money, energy, emotion, hard work – and can’t permit themselves to really contemplate failure. I suspect the vast majority of members of most U.S. denominations have no idea of the vast difference between the beliefs embraced by their organizations and those held and taught a hundred years ago in their traditions. Some of these changes are minor; some of them extraneous; some may even represent improvements – but if one to view them side by side, in every case the net effect of these differences is utterly shocking. This is a function of two separate phenomena. Most members are unaware of the actions undertaken and tolerated by their denominations at all levels; and most members are unaware of what their traditions taught historically.

Additionally, there is a failure to account for institutional non-compliance. It is as if a decision – an action of a particular meeting, assembly, or commission – IS the solution. No attention is paid to how staff, employees, officials at all levels of a denomination carry out these decisions. Much of the focus of renewalists has been on major national gatherings, and it seems as if nothing at all happens in between. I know there are exceptions, but much of the flow of information surrounds these official, on-paper items. The fact that these on-paper items have come to be beloved (by conservative and traditional Christians) artifacts of a particular tradition that are simply ignored when inconvenient seems to be lost on many who desire renewal. Policy statements even tend to be written in sufficiently vague terms, lacking enforcement mechanisms and accountability, so as to allow enough wiggle room for anti-renewalists – even employees of the denominational corporations – to get around them. Usually this vagueness springs from a misplaced attempt by those who desire renewal to be gracious and to be liked.

Finally, there seems to be a notion at work within renewal movements that one can have ‘a little bit of renewal’. This does not necessarily represent an intentional stance. Nonetheless, there is an idea current that ‘if we can just reverse the last decision’, ‘if we can just undo the last action’, ‘if we can just curb the most outrageous of abuses’, then everything will be alright. There is a tendency to rule out without trying anything more than the most modest of efforts. Things that are deemed too extreme are passed over because ‘they will be deal breakers’. Rather than undertake the (slow and somewhat labor intensive) work of making the case for orthodox doctrine, renewalists often set ‘semi-orthodoxy’ or ‘quasi-orthodoxy’ as their goal. Rather than doing the (difficult and unpleasant) work of rooting out institutional corruption, renewalists often set ‘less corrupt’ corruption as their goal. Rather than breaking with what they truly believe to be the errors of the (recent) past, renewalists often insist on flattering that past while urging slight changes in direction. The highest objective of the renewal movement is return to status quo ante the latest outrage. I believe this represents a two-fold error. First it is a strategic error: renewalists essentially give away most fields unfought. Second, if renewalists really are actually longing for revival, then setting ‘modest and attainable’ limits for revival is not possible. The thing itself would be an act of the Holy Spirit; it would, of necessity, be beyond the control of those who desired it. [At this point, I find myself wondering to what degree we actually desire what we say. The Holy Spirit would NOT be convicting others of their sin – or at least, that would be irrelevant to us. The Spirit would be convicting us. I suspect we are comfortable with a number of our departures from biblical Christianity. We rationalize them. We have grown used to them. And genuine revival might end up prompting us to observe, ‘be careful what you wish for’.]

Will Spotts

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