Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deja Vu: Ortberg’s Vision for Church - and the Trivialization That Others Caused

I watched John Ortberg’s 38 minute sermon, Welcome to the ECO. Let me say that he did a marvelous job of re-defining “hell.” I had been critical of the quotes reported from the sermon, however; Ortberg did what a good progressive might do. He re-defined the word and concept so that “Hell is when marriages end, lies are told, when a child is unloved or uneducated, when racial differences divide a street or city or church, when money is hoarded....” He wasn’t literal. Hell was treated as a symbol and metaphor.

John wants a church to which people can and will devote the whole of the rest of their lives. He is passionate for a church that will change the world. He wants a church where meetings don’t waste anyone’s time, but where leaders will meet to to learn and share and encourage each other. He warns that people who don’t want change can go elsewhere, but that a true church would seek out the whiskey guzzling, smoking, child abusing wife-beater. This is all good stuff.

I’ve been here before, 1966-1972. I was a member of a congregation in Chicago (Lincoln Park Presbyterian) that thought it could be and do this. The United Presbyterian Church opposed war, supported my conscientious objection claim, and stood for civil rights. It paid money for bail and defense in civil rights cases, even Angela Davis (This is another story.). We marched in witness to the teachings of prophets and Jesus. We sought the Kingdom of God and broke the bonds of the Westminster Confession. We did so much justice action and creative worship that we burned ourselves out.

By 1974 when I was in my first parish, the pastor of that church, who had been my mentor, left ministry. He was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying “The church of the ‘70's is a betrayal of the church of the ‘60's.” John Ortberg was a Baptist until 5 or 6 years ago, so he didn’t live through this and may not know all this obscure but I think important history.

Has John ever faced members who were executives of a Fortune 500 company, whose policies were unjust? I have. Has he faced military folk about war? I have. The big givers in the late ‘60's told the church leaders “No more of this social action crap.” They introduced a business model of church organization. (“PBE,” or Planning, Budgeting, and Evaluation.) “We will make sure that Angela Davis and anti-war and pro-gay stuff never has any power in this organization again.” (I heard this years later directly from Bill Thompson, who had been Stated Clerk of the church at the time.)

One result was that John Fry, pastor of First Presbyterian Chicago and friend of the Blackstone Rangers wrote a book The Trivialization of the United Presbyterian Church (Harper and Row, 1975). He was a member of the committee that wrote The Confession of ‘67. (It was the draft of this document that set me on my career in the church.) Fry recounts how the new confession began with Jesus Christ, not God, and not Scripture, as previous creeds had. This was from Karl Barth, as was the theme of “reconciliation,” intended to refer to the coming together of God and people through God’s work in Christ and our work of risk-taking justice (from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). The Gospel as Reconciliation became trivialized as patching up differences.

The Layman was established to counter the social justice emphasis of C-‘67. This they trivialized by arguing over theology rather than the racism and war and poverty that the Confession addressed. (They are still at it.) Biblical “social justice” was trivialized into “secular humanism.” The powers that imposed a completely new organization of the denomination then trivialized “reconciliation” into  “mission,” and then trivialized mission by labeling everything “mission” so that no one knew what it meant any longer. John Ortberg should note that the address initiating the Lay Committee insisted that the Lay Committee would not criticize from outside but would remain inside the church, not threatening the “tenets” of the church, but opposing only policy and programs. Thus was all of the conflict and disputation of the past 40 years in the PCUSA established and maintained.

Church organizations have a life-cycle. If you want a new church, walk away from one that doesn’t like change or won’t reach out to the hurt, harmful, and homeless. You can’t change ‘em in your lifetime.Bill Easum taught us this in the ‘90's.

Ortberg opposes “Secularism.” He seems to use the word in its basic meaning – Anything outside the church is secular. The church of his vision preaches Christ who draws all people together who then all devote their whole selves to the church’s community and mission and living holy lives. This describes a high demand church. Presbyterians tend to be low-demand churchgoers. Low demand may mean only that these people live out their faith quietly in their work and families. They just might not want to have friends only in the church or to go to numerous church events during the week.

John Ortberg quotes his mentor in saying that some churches (like the PCUSA) have hay but can’t get it down to the goats. (He acknowledges that we had some good teachings and values.) Other churches don’t have hay, but know how to feed the goats. Well, good luck, John. I applaud the passion, but I would rather you take your marbles and leave, so that the PCUSA can work out its problems without the thousand cuts of death from the right.


Al Sandalow said...

>I would rather you take your marbles and leave, so that the PCUSA can work out its problems without the thousand cuts of death from the right

Well I have to commend you for this one thing. Many progressives seem downright threatened by the specter of more evangelical congregations leaving the PC(USA). Its refreshing to see a progressive who welcomes it.

Reverend Sax said...

I have little confidence that the remaining congregations could lose the weight of tradition that makes them unattractive to more secular moderns. There are about 500 congregations in the PCUSA that I would describe as successfullly progressive.