At the rector's request, our program staff have been reading Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley. Stanley is famous around these parts for being the creator of an enormous Christian ministry conglomerate known as North Point Ministries. Like many folks who are extremely successful at what they do, Stanley gets a lot of flak for his methodology, pedagogy and theology, primarily from those of us in mainline traditions. We've been not-so-secretly sneering at the North Point way for years. But the truth is, in one very basic respect, Stanley is massively successful: there are butts in the seats. In an age where Christianity is purported to be dying on the vine, the several Atlanta-area North Point mega churches are bringing in newcomers by the hundreds each Sunday and playing to a cast of thousands each week.
To be frank, I'm not really enjoying the book. His writing style is irritatingly informal and chipper, while at the same time treading obnoxiously close to "daddy knows best".
It is making me think, and I appreciate that. And I appreciate Stanley's willingness to unlock his secret formula and lay it out for the world (including his detractors) to read, pick apart and learn from. He is bold and he's got some exciting, out-of-the-box ideas about church. There are ways in which I wish I could ingest some of that boldness and translate it into Episcopalese.
Because in the end, there's the rub. One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is that there are so many ways to be engaged in Christianity, so many denominations that answer big questions in so many ways. That same gift is also a challenge, though. So often, we don't quite speak the same language, we don't see eye-to-eye or we think that OUR way has a corner on the Jesus market. That, obviously, is when we get divided, pissy and decidedly un-Christian with each other.
For generations, Anglicans have been defining ourselves as NOT something else. We're NOT Roman Catholics, we're NOT Protestants, we're NOT Evangelicals or any of the rest. But we get stumped when asked to define who we ARE. We're the "middle way", don't you know? I think we can get so afraid of offending or alienating or disrespecting by proclaiming a positive identity that we avoid the issue altogether.
Stanley's book is reminding me to step up to the challenge of defining who we ARE then claiming and owning it. I keep thinking while I'm reading, "That's nice but it wouldn't work for us. It isn't who we are." And I'm forcing myself when I have that observation to answer "well, why?" It is a hard question because i'm having to make choices about who I think we are. Why don't we have giant screens in our worship space? Why do we have pews? Why is most of our music classical? Why are our sermons 12 minutes instead of 45? Why don't I preach a feel-good message every week? Why are we confessing all the time?
There are non-snarky reasons for all fo these things (snarky ones, too, but that's not the point). Reading a "how-to" from a tradition so different than my own is helping me ask these questions again and frame them in light of community definition.
Finally, I want to be clear that I don't think that defining who we are, what we believe and how we worship is creating an "us" and "them". The bare truth is that we are not going to change who we are to fit the needs of every person who walks into our narthex (See that insider language right there? See that?). We will strive always to be open, welcoming, hospitable and TOTALLY HONEST about who we are. We will be the community God created us to be. And the sooner we claim it, can talk about it and be proud of it in positive terms, rather than over-and-against terms, the more people appreciating our vision of Christianity will want to be a part of it.