By John Pierce
The highly publicized visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. provides an opportunity to reflect upon the historic as well as much-needed, ongoing efforts at church reform — from the large, opulent expression in Rome to the small, white-steepled ones on street corners near us.
It’s easy to get off track from the church’s primary purpose and to allow lesser, baser concerns to override the clearest of callings. Simply put, the narrow, hard path of following Jesus requires greater love, deeper forgiveness and broader acceptance than most of us find comfortable.
Like those who troubled Jesus so much, we’d rather work up neat lists of rules and beliefs that make us feel good when excluding others.
Of course, being comfortable and confident is a pretty good sign of having detoured from the selfless, sacrificial Way of the Christ. But our tendency is to give our best attention to other easier matters.
The late theologian Edward Farley, who taught for decades at Vanderbilt Divinity School, published a book a dozen years ago that rings a still-fresh warning.
In Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry, he identifies “three skewed trends” in congregations that deserve attention — and, yes, I would add, reformation.
One: The church as a modern bureaucracy — overly concerned with management, organization and enlargement.
This business success model, I would call it, must be kept in check. We rightly organize, support and work efficiently for a great purpose than being well organized, financially sound and efficient. These are means to a greater end.
If our measuring stick becomes the organizational condition of a bureaucracy, we will likely find ourselves to be successful but not particularly faithful.
Two: The church as a source of individual fulfillment — overly concerned with personal satisfaction and appeasement.
Those of us with many ministers as close friends see, hear and feel this reality often. It is the congregational trap set for pastors — who are expected to appease listeners (thereby keeping the bureaucracy sound) while somehow proclaiming the Gospel.
It doesn’t work. Either the pastor gets in hot water or the Gospel gets watered down in order to appease.
Three: The church as a moralistic meter — overly concerned with detailed codes of behavior and ethical legalism.
This is part of the preacher trap, which allows for addressing only certain so-called sins. In American culture, evangelical Christianity has been widely rebranded as a particular political ideology that reflects very little of the life and teachings of Jesus. It is astonishing what gets called “Christian” today.
As a result, it is widely acceptable for those claiming to be Christian to be greedy, racist and belittling of others, and to foster injustices through one’s personal and professional life. Just don’t drink and gamble, or hold the “wrong” opinion on women’s roles, gay rights, immigrants and other issues mislabeled as biblical truth.
Preachers know that there are only certain toes most congregants are willing to have stepped on.
Indeed, the mission and function of the church can get skewed without careful reflection and intentional redirection. And defensiveness is often the roadblock to needed change.
Church reform in Rome may come best from its papal leader. In congregations without such hierarchy, however, it comes best from bold, influential lay leaders who affirm and free their ministers to preach, teach and exemplify the counter-cultural, life-changing, grace-filled Way of Christ — even if it makes us uncomfortable and less confident.
Or, perhaps, because it makes us feel that way.