Thursday, May 11, 2017

Boxes and the problem of creative, compelling witness

Think outside the box.  I imagine you have heard that before.  A recent clergy conference encouraged conversation about how to become a more creative, more compelling witnesses to Jesus Christ, which, as Episcopalians, was a frightening idea.  It sounded a lot like evangelism.  What could we do?  It was the theme of the day.  Several suggested that we needed to start by thinking outside the box.  Good grief, what does that mean?  Bible thumping door knockers, and demands to accept Jesus as one's personal savior, are not our thing.  They make us uncomfortable.  We reject much of their underlying theology.  But they have become the de facto standard for what witnessing to Jesus is all about. Indeed, we are mildly repelled by it, quite certain it's the very poorest form of evangelism.  Is that the box?  Probably not.  It’s not a box we were ever in.  But it’s a handy box to point to as we claim to be thinking outside of it.  It doesn’t fit, it’s misleading, and we need a different understanding of boxes before we can get outside of them.

I would rather ignore the imperative to think outside the box altogether.  It’s not an answer to any question.  It's not even a decent platitude.  However, we’re stuck with it, and it can be a decent metaphor for where we have to begin.  If we need to think outside the box, we need to know what the box is, what’s inside it, and where we are in relation to it.  What can we say about the boundaries that identify  what Episcopalians have called witnessing to Jesus Christ within the context of their worship experiences and daily lives?  That defines the box, or at least one of them.  Is there a difference between what clergy say, what lay leaders say, and what other lay people say? What evidence can we offer to support our descriptions of what those boundaries are?  Anecdotes are not evidence, at least not adequate evidence.  One colleague always seems to have an abundance of anecdotal stories to tell, each one drawn from experience of decades ago, yet applied to today as if nothing has changed.  Another cites a variety of assumptions garnered from social media, and the occasional article in some magazine, as if what is done in or said to be true about one part of the country is equally true for our part.  We have our own history of what we meant when we entered the various decades of evangelism or promises to be bold in Christ, and we need to describe the boundaries of our boxes by those meanings.

Some might argue about that, claiming they never agreed to what bishops or conventions adopted as evangelism goals.   OK, what did your box look like?  Does it look like that now?  Do you even have a box?  Maybe you never had a box labeled witnessing to Jesus.  I don’t think I did, at least not for a very long time.     

That aside, what’s in the box?  As soon as someone brought up the subject of thinking outside the box, several others reached into theirs to pull out a few examples: walking around the neighborhood, stopping now and then to huddle in prayer; walking around the neighborhood to get to know it; offering “Ashes to Go” on Main Street; operating a soup kitchen; making up kits of food for poor children to take home over the weekend, etc.  All very good things to do.  I’m sure God approves.  All pulled out of their boxes.  None easy to verify as providing a creative and compelling witness to Jesus Christ.   

It brings up the final question.  What is our relationship to the box.  Do we hide in it to keep from doing the hard work of thinking about what a creative and compelling witness might look like for Episcopalians?  Are we so confined by it that we cant envision another way?  Some clergy and lay leaders are so committed to the good things they already do that they treat any suggestion of another way as a personal indictment requiring a vigorous defense.  Defensive maneuvers seldom move in the direction of creative and compelling.  Moving in the direction of creative and compelling may not require an enormous leap into an alien dimension.  Maybe it requires only a modest midcourse adjustment.  Even modest adjustments are impossible if, like the Titanic, one ignores the iceberg and refuses to change course.

Do our personal anxieties override our ability to think in a new way.  One person confessed that she simply cannot bring herself to talk about Jesus outside the church.  She just can’t, and it’s humiliating to be shoved and prodded to do what she cannot do.  OK, but there are others who are willing to become more comfortable doing that, so for her the question is: what can you do to support them, what can you do to encourage the Church to be a creative and compelling witness?   That was a new idea to her, and something she could do.  A related obstacle is ignorance of changing conditions in the market place.  One person proclaimed that we need to work on getting folks back into church.  You can only get people back if they have once been there.  There are few of them.  Most are in their second or third generation of never having been in a church, having no knowledge of Christianity, other than what they pick up from the media, and can see nothing compelling about it.

There’s more, but you get the idea.  Maybe it would help to start in another way.  Forget about being a creative and compelling witness to Jesus Christ.  Just focus on finding out what is creative and compelling about something else that is good and worthy in the world.  Then add Jesus Christ back into the mix.  

Thinking outside the box is hard because boxes are easy to get into and hard to get out of.  It could be that one of the smallest boxes in our inventory is the one marked Jesus.  Maybe we keep him in it, and then try to climb in with him.  Maybe we don’t need to think outside the box at all.  Maybe we just need to pull Jesus out of the box and let him go. 




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