A student at our seminary, a millennial — so full of energy and hope, and so young that she does not remember much about the church of yesteryear that people my age still lament — sent me an email message last fall.
It contained a definition of Christianity, sadly cynical, that she had seen on Facebook. “Christianity is the belief that a two-thousand-year-old Jewish zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat an apple off a magical tree in a wonderland.” Somehow, that take on our faith seems like a good place to begin when it comes to why people distrust, not just our claims as Christians, but all the rest of it as well.
Hugh Heclo, a professor of public affairs, writes in On Thinking Institutionally that all modern people distrust institutions. “As good pluralists, tolerant multiculturalists, secular or religious moralists,” he writes, “we can be divided on almost any other imaginable subject. But a fundamental distrust of institutions is the one mark we have in common as inhabitants of these times.”
The irony, he reminds us, is that we live in the midst of myriad institutions and are controlled and guided by them even while we believe that they do not have our best interests at heart.
I think he’s on to something. There is such a thing as healthy distrust, but what I’m talking about, especially when I think about the Facebook definition of Christianity, is an anti-institutional anxiety out there in our culture, and certainly in the church, that runs all the way to cynicism.
Of course, the church has earned this distrust, just as all institutions have. Perhaps that’s why there is in the land a fresh desire to imagine a church and a ministry that are somehow non-institutional — “spiritual and not religious,” as the mantra goes. It is often asked in these days: Do we really need our seminaries? Are they not part of the problem — so encrusted with buildings and memory and tradition? Can’t we just throw all of that baggage over, so that we can be like an unencumbered flag blowing freely in the breeze, totally relevant to today and tomorrow, and forget about yesterday?
Institutions are suspect in our time. Even Eugene Peterson, an iconic practical theologian and model for the pastoral life, has argued that ministers should concentrate on preaching and teaching and stay out of such institutional matters as administration. But Thomas W. Currie III, in an essay in a volume called The Power to Comprehend With All the Saints, has responded to Peterson’s assertion. He says that it strikes him as romantic and even docetic to think that a minister could avoid institutional concerns. “The administrative tasks extend to knowing what the giving patterns in her congregation are like, what financial needs and challenges the congregation faces, and what resources and people can be called upon to help the community meet those needs and challenges,” he says. “That means meetings and time.”
Currie continues: “This is not the most important thing, but it is far from being the least important. It is hard and often energy draining and time consuming.” He argues that unless the minister understands the practical concerns of parish life, ministry can become too “spiritual” and not “intimate.”
“Life is in the minutiae, in the details, as is much of ministry,” Currie concludes. I agree with him. Our institutions matter because, at their best, they are incarnational. They enable the church to respond faithfully to God’s invitation to love the world. This is, I’m sure, why John Calvin cared as much about Geneva’s sewers as he did its churches, schools, and hospitals. Every square inch in all the world bears the initials of God, who is not just a good idea but is profoundly incarnational, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is why I so love John 1:14. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” That’s the incarnation! And it invites us to be incarnational in our lives and our commitments.
When that student sent me that cynical description of the church off of Facebook, I wrote her back and said, “Yeah, that’s how the faith often looks from the outside. But here’s how the faith looks from the inside.”
The ruins of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Port-au-Prince, one year after a massive earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010.
Image Credit: James Emery
And I told her about what two members of my congregation did a few years ago. A married couple, who were both experienced administrators, went to Haiti as volunteers to work at a hospital near Port-au-Prince. They were there when the earthquake hit. And we didn’t hear from them for a good while. Finally, they got out from the rubble of their building, which had collapsed on them and everybody else inside, and eventually they were able to send an email message that they were OK.
That message got forwarded to many of us in the congregation. Here’s what they wrote: “We’re living in a field behind the hospital, some 200 of us. At night we go to sleep to the sound of hymn-singing; and then we wake up to worship: scripture, prayers, and the saying out loud of the Apostles’ Creed.
“I’ve never understood the concept of joy in the midst of suffering until now.”
Two hundred earthen vessels — clay jars, cracked pots, words made flesh — in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, gathering in a field at night to sleep, but also to worship — to celebrate the gospel treasure within each one of them. “Afflicted in every way, but not crushed,” writes St. Paul in 2 Corinthians. “Perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible.”
That’s not just a good idea. That’s good news, in the midst of hellish circumstances. The world is hungry for it. And sometimes it’s passed on through institutions like ours.
Theodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. An earlier version of this essay was delivered to the Presidential Leadership Intensive Conference, hosted by the Association of Theological Schools, which took place January 24–27, 2016, in San Antonio, Texas.