Being Church in an Age of Anxiety
Jason E. Vickers, a young theologian at United Theological Seminary, has written a new book on "a theology for church renewal" titled Minding the Good Ground (Baylor University Press, 2011).
Vickers says the Western church of North America and Europe has moved from the optimism of the 1960's to "a deep and unsettling anxiety" that began in the 1980's. While this anxiety clearly affects the "mainline" churches, it is beginning to affect evangelicals and pentecostalists as well. Among the factors contributing to numerical decline are scandals involving church leaders, acrimonious disputes within churches, the sense that the secular culture is against us, the focus of culture on entertainment, ambivalence about doing evangelism in a culture which values tolerance, the professionalization of the ministry and inheritance of church structures created for an earlier day, and the decline in religious literacy among people.
In response to this anxiety, many leaders and movements have arisen to promote renewal of the church. These offer diagnoses for what is wrong, visions for how to fix it, and approaches which transcend denominational identities. Vickers says that local clergy and congregations are sometimes bewildered by all of these voices and overwhelmed by their different agendas, His book is an attempt to provide perspective on church renewal by developing a theology of the church.
In discussing the true nature of the church, Vickers stresses the identity of the church as a creation of the Holy Spirit. He believes that fear and anxiety motivate us to "put our faith and hope in resources other than the Holy Spirit." Because the evidence of church history is that the Holy Spirit has produced both structures and innovative movements, he believes that the church needs to obtain a balance in being open to new movements while using time-honored structures. Neither structures nor movements are themselves the Holy Spirit, He warns that we have "lost sight of our Lord" in our anxious attempts to fix problems by our own efforts. While hard work, innovation, and structures are all necessary to respond to the Spirit's guidance, we should be a church that is always praying, "Come, Holy Spirit" in a life of "continual epiclesis."
In moving from the identity of the church to its mission, Vickers observes how we are caught between making the mission too broad and making it too narrow. He emphasizes that the essential mission of the church is two-fold--worshipping the triune God and witnessing to Jesus Christ in word and deed. The most helpful part of his discussion of the mission of the church is his explanation of how a local congregation needs to employ "moral reasoning" about its calling and resources in order to fashion a specific mission to its own community. This kind of reasoning is a part of discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The most important calling of the congregation is to be in prayer.
The most challenging part of Vickers' book is his discussion of the "sacramental life" of the church, which he defines broadly as a participation in many means of grace. The main point Vickers makes is that the church produces saints; and, if it is too shallow to produce saints, then it is not worth the attention of the world. His premise is that the true Christian life is a deep re-ordering of our desires over a long time through our cooperation with God's grace, and this genuine conversion does not happen instantly or by oneself. He faults evangelicals who confuse genuine conversion with making a profession of faith, and he faults liberals for substituting an ideology of inclusivity for a call to discipleship. Our problem today, Vickers insists, is that we are grasping for quick fixes rather than being committed to the renewal of the church over the long haul. We succumb to "the tyranny of the urgent." In the end, the church will be renewed only when it becomes a community where people find what they cannot readily find anywhere else--a community that embodies the mind of Christ, nurtures holiness of life, and exhibits the fruits of the Holy Spirit. His image for this kind of church is a "spiritual hospital."
I commend Vickers' Minding the Good Ground, and I also suggest that you consult the church renewal website of United Theological Seminary www.churchrenewal.united.edu.