The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
We're planning a fellowship dinner at our church, a very special affair. The menu will have some of our congregation's favorite foods: rice cereal, strained peas, warm milk and applesauce. Yum!
That's hyperbole, but it does speak to a frustration and a concern that I have about all too many churches. In spiritual development, ethical thinking, educational content and behavioral skills, lots of churches are stuck at an immature level. The best offerings are the equivalent of baby food.
When I visit local congregations, and when I correspond with church leaders, I always have an expectation that the Christian Church exists to be transformational. (Last spring, I worked through the four theological affirmations that center Eco-Justice Ministries; transformation was third on the list.) I begin with the assumption that churches bring a challenging message of hope that can change lives and change the world. My assumption is often met by confusion or blank stares.
That is probably because, as Sallie McFague notes in Life Abundant, much of "current Christianity is therapeutic, oriented to making human beings better and happier." She contrasts that therapeutic approach with the proclamation of "divine care extended to the liberation of the entire earth," and the way churches would then be moved to take on difficult cosmological and political concerns. Sallie McFague and I -- and a host of other leaders -- believe that the church needs to offer more than "baby food."
My cynical sense that churches are providing only bottles of warm formula has scriptural precedent. Twice in the biblical epistles (1 Cor. 3 and Heb. 5), the same complaint is made. The grumbling in Hebrews rings true for me:
we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.
Do we offer anything that our members can "sink their teeth into" or that has rich flavor? The bland and pureed is appropriate for some, but we need to have lots of more grown-up options, too. Churches need to have an expectation that folk will progress from milk to solid food, that they will be life-long learners about faith and the world.
Unlike my initial description of a fellowship dinner catered by Gerber, the metaphorical spread of food at a really good church potluck might include vegetable curry, Cajun beans and rice, robust sourdough bread, sharp cheeses, diverse salads, crisp fruit -- and a bit of chocolate! So, too, the ministries and programs of our churches need to entice and challenge us all with flavorful, chewy and challenging perspectives. We need to move beyond platitudes, and push our members into richer understandings of faithfulness. Our spiritual food needs to be nutritious and energizing, so that our members can grow toward transformation.
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In our society, there is another image that speaks vividly about growth and challenges. It is less fun, but more illuminating, than the baby food/solid food metaphor. Course numbers at colleges and seminaries generally are coded to indicate the difficulty of the class. Introductory classes are 100 level, open to anyone. Advanced courses for majors are given numbers in the 400 range, and have prerequisites that must be met to ensure that students are capable of handling difficult topics.
I'd love to be proven wrong, but it seems to me that most churches, in most of their programming, are offering the equivalent of 100 level courses. There are no prerequisites, and they are intentionally designed so that anybody can come and participate fully. There is nothing too challenging, nothing that is likely to be very transformational.
In most "therapeutic" churches, worship is generally pretty safe, biblical interpretation is pretty superficial, mission projects are pretty charitable, and education is pretty basic. On the environmental front, nothing ever goes much farther than changing light bulbs and using cloth shopping bags. All of those are good and necessary starting points, but they are not sufficient for developing mature Christians.
It is possible to move up the ladder. The popular adult education curriculum, "Living the Questions" is a solid 200 level course. It is helpful if class members have been through Christianity 101 and 102, and if they have struggled with some questions that would not occur to beginners. So, too, in worship, service, fellowship and advocacy, churches can offer options where spiritual newcomers would be confused or threatened, and where those who have been around for a while will find new opportunities for growth and development. Environmentally, churches can go beyond the basics of recycling and invest in renewable energy, they can study the impacts of consumerism, or make a commitment to sustainable foods. (That potluck dinner might always be vegetarian!)
Hopefully, churches can, and will, go even farther, into 300 and 400 level courses. The "Just Faith" curriculum, "a thirty-week adult educational and formational process, offers an opportunity for people of faith to embark upon a spiritual journey into compassion" which is not suitable for beginners. I know of churches which have sent members on study trips to Central America where the goal is not to serve, but is entirely to learn and to be challenged. Seminars can be offered that delve deeply into the complexity of social, economic and ecological systems, and that raise deep questions about our values and worldviews.
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Baby food and introductory courses are both necessary as we welcome folk into lives of faith. If our faith and witness is going to be transformative, though -- if our members are going to grow in commitment and move toward transformation -- then we have to provide delightful and nourishing solid food, and we have to lead students on the journey of life into the upper level courses.
I know that there are many churches doing strong and challenging ministry, but I fear that there are many more which never offer anything beyond beginner's fare. I invite you to increase my hope, and to inform me of new models for ministry. Share with me, if you will, stories of churches that are doing well in nurturing people toward mature and ever-growing faith. Those success stories will empower churches in relevant ministry.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org