Friday, October 30, 2009

$200K Grants for Changes in Church Policy: Welcome to the New Way of Being Church

A few weeks ago I lamented that everyone wanted to be a politician, even those who lead the Church. Simply preaching and defending the gospel has ceased to be enough of a calling; the so-called “social gospel”, enacted by achieving social justice now deserved top billing. This social gospel compelled those who should have been churchmen to become politicians, by lobbying politicians, preaching on the social ills of the world and the building of God’s Kingdom as a remedy, or using plays like The Vagina Monologues to make a “religious” point about the abuse of women. The examples are myriad. It turns out I was more right than even I imagined, especially if one of the hallmarks of politics is behind-the-scenes deal-making and huge sums of money being used for lobbying purposes.
I recently heard about a $200,000 grant to an organization called Lutherans Concerned, a self-described advocacy group that worked for change within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). (Details about the grant are here.)

Lutherans Concerned is not affiliated with the ELCA, and the exact cause they supported is not my concern here, though I will say I am not in favor of their agenda. The fact that a seemingly secular organization could so influence the life of a denomination does not surprise me. But it does shock me. It is not the business of any foundation, or in this case the Arcus Foundation, what the ELCA chooses to do with theological issues before it. Yet they got involved, and no doubt Lutherans Concerned was only too happy to take the money. 

Why would a secular organization, with seemingly no “skin in the game” get involved in an issue like this? My sense is that the church was merely used as a vehicle to lend moral credibility to the cause. If lobbying efforts were successful (and they were), and a “majority” of ELCA Lutherans voted to approve the action that was lobbied for, then the Church would be seen as speaking in a new way. No doubt this must please many who have been lobbying. But isn’t it a rather shallow victory? Is this what the Church has come down to? Majority votes? Lobbying? Secular foundations dictating the mission and conversation of the Church?.

For many mainline Protestants, this is indeed the case. Liberation theologies have so infested these church bodies, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the “social gospel” and what I like to call the “actual gospel.” Even those who are not in favor of the changes that have come to the ELCA continue to defend the ELCA as though its mere existence was to be celebrated. But this is not the mission of the Church, to state the obvious. Is it possible that Protestants are finally in a context (Postmodernism, relativism, post-Christianity, etc.) in which their Achilles heel is on full display? I think that is the case. Conventional morality and fidelity to the faith that Europe politicized for 1,000 years could only keep the faith relevant for so long. Once secular forces became too strong, the Protestant church began to fulfill every Roman Catholic stereotype: it was fractured, splintered and weak. Who knew? The Magisterium may have been the way to go after all.

Which, as always, leaves us with the question of where to go? There is no new place to go. There is only the truth to turn to, the basics of the faith. Lutherans would say Word and Sacrament. Perhaps Roman Catholics might cite the early church fathers. Some congregations are even talking about reinstituting “thee” and “thou” language in an attempt to recapture the sense of truth from previous generations. However it is done, mainline Protestants would do well to remember that there is nothing new under the sun. So quit voting on it. And for the love of God, quit using secular money to push so blatant a political agenda. It’s rather un-churchly.
The irony is that as the mainline churches get more political and take up every social cause imaginable, the more irrelevant we become. Our numbers are plummeting and our social influence is nil, even as bishops did all they could to “speak truth to power” when President Bush was in office. (Now that President Obama has been elected, speaking truth to power is passé. Amazing how that happened.) Votes and social statements and lame television ads are all but meaningless in our secular age. Any political victory on either side of any issue is sure to be heard as a dull thud by those looking on from the outside.

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