On Fridays in Lent we have an hour and a half "mini-retreat." Following Morning Prayer a group of us gather in the parish hall to pray over and reflect upon the daily readings. This past Friday I left afterward to grab some lunch and pick up my briefcase (and CALENDAR!) which I had left at home that morning. I came out to find Mike and Lisa working on the Dogwood tree. It is in bloom so the dead branches are most noticable. Mike was trimming and cutting and sawing.
Two hours later as I was going through my e-mails (what did priests do before e-mail!?!) I noticed one from Juli, our resident photographer. She had taken a photo of the church with the headline: A new picture of the church with the Dogwood in bloom. As is typical, her photo was lovely. It was also out of date. You see she took a picture around 10:00 that morning. By the time her photo arrived in the e-mail Mike had already done his work. The picture she took was of a tree which now looks different.
That, in a nut shell, is the problem with the contemporary church. It is always going out of date. Just as it announces to the world that it is cutting edge and up to date, someone comes along with the next new thing and the church finds itself having to reconfigure everything. The shelf life of "popular" is pretty short. Today's hot new style is tomorrow's "oh, so out of it" fashion faux pas. We live in a time where we are so much speedier and still we cannot keep up.
When I was a boy in the 70's when you took a picture, you had to wait for the whole roll to be shot before you could take it in to be developed. Then to distribute it to all your friends would take days, or weeks. And it would be costly, as each photo, each envelope, each stamp added up. Today, Juli can in a few minutes and at no extra cost shoot and send and in seconds deliver to dozens (or hundreds of friends) with her computer.
But with all that speed, she still could not send out a photo that was truly up to date and contemporary.
What church Fathers called the apostolic faith was not intended to be cutting edge or 'new-and-improved.' The early preachers certainly thought that in Jesus God was doing a new thing, but the new thing was grounded in the old thing that God had been doing, over and again, since Adam and Eve. We encounter the truth of the Triune God in the words recorded in Scripture, and the tradition and teaching of the church provides commentary on that Word. Our security is in ancient Revelation. Our reflections today allow us to understand and apply that message of hope in our own times. But it is our times which must be conformed to the message and not the message to the times.
I was at our national convention where the Epsicopal Church made a public declaration that it was breaking with traditional morality and the teaching of Scripture. Numerous speakers proclaimed that the spirit was doing a new thing. Countless delegates told me privately (and all of us publicly) that the Episcopal Church was now up to date. Young people, we were told, want a church which shares their value system. They hunger for a church which expresses the message that God is relevant. I heard, again and again, that in the days ahead a huge throng of these young people would flow into the Episcopal church because it was contemporary! I will not bore you with details, I will simply say that these (false) prophets of the coming golden age of contemporary bliss have proven to be wrong. Total attendance is down well over 10% since then and shows no sign of improvement.
But we continue on that road! The last few years we have rallied around the UN Millenial goals. We were given alternative stations of the cross. Why reflect on Jesus' passion when we have so many contemporary issues to meditate upon. The current new thing is "Green" and we have begun to proclaim the Judgment of Global Warning (oooppppss! I mean Climate change, gotta keep up). The good news is recycling is the way and renewable solar energy will be our salvation. The earth is our mother (not the church) and ecology is our theology. I am a proponent of aiding the poor of our world (our church budget allocates half our income toward aiding others) and our parish tries to practice good stewardship of resources and we do recycle. The problem is, in trying to be "with it" we are forgetting about Jesus and focusing on other things instead of Him.
And the problem is, by the time the "marketing department" figures out the next new thing, and then gets the word out to the bishops, and the bishops gather to meet, and then the bishops bring it home, and then the local leaders are trained and brought up to date and sent out to bring the parishes and missions on board, well, by the time all that has taken place it is no longer the "new thing" at all.
The problem with the contemporary church is it is trying to be up to date with "this" world (and not anything ancient). The problem is "this world" is passing away. The world is always old, even when contemporary. Jesus and His word is forever. As a citizen and life-long occupant of this world, I am drawn into the 'contemporary' and seduced by the 'relevant". The struggle is to find the TRUTH, not the new. The battle is to submit to the authority of the Lord and His Spirit, not to follow the present age and its spirit. The newest and most contemporary falsehoods are still a lie. The contemporary church, full of its own sense of "being cool," has never seen that the new thing is a very old thing. A very old, sick and destructive thing, which dressing in a diaper and being declared contemporary does not change or improve.