Sermon: How Utterly Gauche!

05.04.2014    Preaching Text: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23)

In the ongoing work of our Study Group, the one convened to take a focused look at First Church’s future, we’ve been reading Tony Robinson’s 2004 book, Transforming Congregational Culture. Some of you may have read it a few years back when it was an adult education offering.

In chapter 4, Robinson, a U.C.C. pastor, author, and consultant, locates much of the problem within “Mainline Protestantism” today as the result of its longstanding practice of “civil religion”.

The term “civil religion” was coined by the Swiss-French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762. Civil religion, for Rousseau, was the moral and spiritual foundation necessary for a modern (though secular) society. It was to be the social cement that would unify the state by bestowing upon it sacred authority. Religion, thus, for Rousseau, exists not for its intrinsic value, but for its preservative function within society.

In the American context civil religion was always a part of our self-understanding, beginning with our founding. A certain form of civil religion, however, became pronounced in the early 20th century.

Spurred by the historic success of traditional Christianity and its positive influence on American society, and in response to concerns about some of the more undesirable consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the commensurate mass migration into urban areas, the Mainline Protestant churches embarked upon a new mission.

It came to be known as the “Social Gospel,” a movement that sought once and for all to eliminate suffering and injustice within American society. Though noble in intent, its newfound methods ultimately were to prove problematic.

The social gospel movement took for granted, in other words, the specific theological underpinnings of traditional Christianity, assuming these no longer needed to be taught in advancing the human project. Once American society had reached a certain apex of civilizational advancement, the specifics of religion were no longer necessary.

Author Joseph Bottum recently suggested that Christ, as interpreted by the early 20th century, had served as a ladder, which, once ascended, afforded a grand overview or perspective. Once these heights had been attained, however, the ladder (Christ) was no longer needed!

The new emphasis was on changing the outward structures of society. The real action, in other words, was “out there,” and decidedly not within the cloistered walls of the church. In the plurality that was 20th century America (with a considerable assist from civil religion), the idea, at least up until the late 60’s, was that every American was a good moral Christian. Thus, all that was needed was to harness this energy and put it into action, largely, though it must be said, by secular means.

Robinson argues in chapter 4 that, because being a Christian meant being “a decent person and a good citizen”, people decided, altogether logically, that they really didn’t need the church to be either!

“The church that plunks people on a committee,” he writes, “assumes that they have the basics, and serves up a bland moralistic version of the Christian faith will probably not be addressing the deepest longings and questions that spur people to seek a church…”

But what will? Inviting people “into an experience of the sacred, an encounter with God, one that is somehow life-changing”; to place people “in a zone of risk, of change, or reorientation, of new birth”.

For some time now, the Mainline Protestant churches have considered talk of such things as new birth, of being “born anew”, of being “born again”, as utterly gauche. Back in the 80’s, for instance, there was a U.C.C. campaign to encourage evangelism, which they artfully and knowingly dubbed the “‘e” word!

Since the advent of the social gospel, the Mainline Protestant churches have largely avoided traditional words such as evangelism, being born anew, salvation, etc., even though we hear them practically every Sunday morning from the Bible, and even though they form a significant part of the history of our own Congregational tradition.

In today’s readings, for instance, spiritual transformation is presented as crucial. The idea, without question, is that human beings need to be saved, to be born anew. But because we perceive these words and concepts as foreign to our tradition, and because we have seen them misused by other Christian traditions, we reject them.

As Robinson suggests, if all we Christians need to be are decent people and good citizens, why do we need to be spiritually transformed? Aren’t we good enough already?

As one who attended college in the late 60’s and early 70’s, at the very time my generation was rejecting the church, there was a strong pull toward alternative religions, especially Eastern ones.

There are any number of reasons for this. For one, it was a clear rejection of anything that smacked of the “establishment.” Along the same lines, it emphasized the allure of the unfamiliar, of the foreign.

But it also, perhaps most significantly, had to do with the sheer mysticism of much of Eastern religion. In contrast to the rather mundane moral practicality of Mainline Protestantism, Buddhism, for example, offered an almost magical supernaturalism that seemed to embrace the holy, that reality which cannot be ascertained by our five senses.

Robinson’s more general point is that, after some 50 years or so of significant cultural disruption and dislocation, there exists today much brokenness and not a few lost souls. As such, the church has a tremendous opportunity to meet the spiritual needs and concerns of our age.

In order to accomplish this, we need to reclaim our historic mandate of making disciples, which involves, necessarily, spiritual formation and re-formation. Robinson writes, “Whether or not our worship calls and invites us into God’s transforming presence is the crucial question facing the once mainline churches.”

Thus, today’s biblical witness to the truth of spiritual formation stands not as an ancient testimonial to a bygone era, but as a reminder of what is basic to Christian faith in every time and place. Amen.