If the church is to fulfill its mission on the planet as a sign and servant of God's kingdom, then it must yearn for renewal not as an end in itself but in order to bear witness in the world with increased comprehensiveness, clarity, and credibility (106).
I love Eddie Gibbs because of statements like this. There is so much freedom here to move in creative, culturally astute ways so that the church can respond to the needs of people in ways that will freshen their experiences in life and allow God to transcend it. And with such an imperative, Gibbs also cautions and reminds us that we live in a world still awaiting its final consummation and fulfillment in the second coming (whatever that means!), and in the meantime we operate as people continually in need of redemption and reconciliation (107). As a result of living in process, so too, the church ought to always be in process, seeking out this same reconciliation as she creaks like a wooden attic with old age and morphs like a butterfly into new realities. The practical steps of resolution that Gibbs offers church leaders in this chapter exacerbate the point that nominality is present everywhere, even in extremely vibrant faith communities. (Are there nominal new monastics yet?) I loved the portion of this chapter dedicated to the commitment level of the senior pastor (122). I hurt so badly for churches without a vision, floundering along because they are either too concerned with self-preservation or because they are simply exhausted from the grind of serving the world. Gibbs highlights the importance of motivating people for service by reminding them of their God-given abilities and giftedness for such a purpose. I am glad this is addressed.
Those who are "spiritually disenfranchised" as a result of geographic relocation or the city church bearing less of a physical presence (when compared to the large mega-church out in the suburbs) does not stir up feelings of sensitivity and mercy in me (133). How is that for some good ole pastoral compassion? (Note the sarcasm I'm employing on myself please!) I found myself very curious about this chapter and those that followed on my initial read-through because Gibbs wanted to address the concerns around pluralism and secularization in urban America as they relate to nominality (133). These seem like issues that if the church could more holistically embrace, it could better minister to nominality rather than perpetuate it, at least in a post-modern framework. The conversation about rapid urban-industrialization, to suburban commodification and development (143-149), and how the church that was lost in the transitions fascinated me because of the ways in which she was constantly unable to maintain pace with her evolving society. So again, the church misses many opportunities to minister to people because it could not translate the gospel message into a modern dialect. As a result, the churches fled to the suburbs with the workers and families. For this reason,
Inner-city ministry demands an incarnational approach by people who are prepared to identify long-term with the community...the most effective years of a person's ministry do not begin until the fourth to seventh year. That figure is extended to ten years in the case of those pastoring in the inner city. And not infrequently it takes ten years in order to begin to make a significant impact...credibility has to be established by making it clear that the leader is there as a matter of calling and choice and is committed for the 'long haul'" (153).
Yet the possibilities are endless if this commitment is made and achieved. This is why movements like New Monasticism, the New Friars, and intentional communities are so invigorating and "successful."
The process by which Christians have become a "cognitive minority," that is, a marginalized, theistically thinking group of oddballs, is as follows: 1) relativization, 2) privatization, 3) marginalization, 4) trivialization, 5) commercialization, and 6) sanitization (178-182). While I will not take the time here to define each of these terms again, I will note that the consequences of these steps has encouraged evangelicals to continue with a divide between their public and private domains. So that, when we read the Beatitudes, rather than exegeting them as actual rules for a new community, i.e. the kingdom of God, instead we read them as lovely platitudes reserved for a few elite members of the faith to uphold in solidarity for the rest of us, i.e. monks and nuns. Something tells me Jesus had more of a general populace in mind when he shared his wisdom in a sermon on that particular mount one day so long ago. In this way, just as the first century Jews of Jesus' day found themselves among a transcendent guy who offered a counter-intuitive message that seemed a contradiction to their rulers and powers (197), so too, today, the same transcendent Lord gives divine experiences to those of us in search of meaning. Therefore, how much more is God willing to guide our communities as we extend grace and forgiveness to one another in the name of Christ?
This section of the book deals sympathetically and effectively with concerns regarding American religious pluralism. How do churches who have turned inward and grown into a private enclave of like-minded people open themselves again to new people and ideas in such away that promotes a kingdom agenda? Gibbs affirms that this change must take place if the American church hopes to survive amongst so much spiritual fanfare (200). Multiculturalism seems a huge area that many churches struggle to embrace (205). I hope to research more, at some future point, how churches can better embrace their own urban, American, (fill-in-the-blank) identity, yet still seek to incorporate and warmly welcome new cultural traditions and expressions of following Jesus into their overall identity in Christ. So, to answer my earlier question at the start of this post, in my opinion, Gibbs does well to highlight the ways in which pluralism has contributed to nominality, in so far as it is a reason that churches have grown introverted and fearful. This traces me back to my original thought as well, that if congregants could be taught and offered a vision contrary to this fetal position of protection and learn to open their hands of inclusivity, without denying their Jesus-label, then pluralism seems like it could minister greatly to nominality. I do not think I am being too naive here, or too liberal. And while I still want to uphold Gibbs' idea that we need to promote absolutes in the church (chapter 6), I also appreciate and affirm his idea that just as all religions have elements of Truth, so too, they come to us with elements "of a human...nature" (236). If we could readily embrace this, we would be forced to see the gray areas of spirituality, the ambiguity of faith, the mystical parts of God's character, with greater depth. I hope to continue moving in this direction without losing Jesus' impact as I move forward in ministry.
At the risk of sounding more critical and negative than I intend, this chapter is perhaps the most out-of-date. However, I still think there is much to glean from it as well. For example consider, "Many leaders are still unable to hear and face up to [the] challenge to rethink their strategies to engage an unchurched culture" (241). Won't this always be true regardless of extenuating, cultural circumstances? Gibbs goes on to underline the danger of church leadership focusing too heavily on programs to the neglect of felt needs (245-246). Again, this will always be a relevant caution, even for those communities who live together, serve together, and raise their kids together. Right?
Finally, Gibbs notes that we need to not be obsessed with an increase in membership more than we are with growing people into more mature disciples of Christ (247). He surmises that a focus only on numbers is detrimental because it refuses to acknowledge that we no longer live in a "churched-culture" (247). I agree. However, (and warning, here comes feminist-Lauren, not that I am apologizing for it), I want to add to that idea that perhaps it is because most of American evangelical and mainline churches up until recently have been led by white males on a quest for power in a country where bigger is always better. I wonder if this temptation to judge our ecclesial success by membership quota and sanctuary size would not so much be the case if the church would have been hearing from women longer? (Perhaps this conjecture is unfair seeing that we will never know the answer. On the other hand, female pastors today are still pulled in more directions than men with all of the familial, vocational, and social hats they must wear in order to do all of their jobs well. So there is little time for touring, book writing, marketing, and church growth workshops that so many men attend. Is this too genderfied...maybe? I realize there are always exceptions.)
In closing, this work has empowered me to confess that nominality still exists in the twenty-first century, and it is enough of a concern that we ought to address it. In order to respond, I hope to continue searching for a rhetoric and new language pieces that will help me articulate the elements of nominality that I hope to address in my own parish ministry as God leads.
P.S. I love Barbara Brown Taylor.