September 22, 2019
A New Kind of Spiritual Practice
I. The Evangelism Gap
I want to introduce you to a new spiritual practice today, and it will help ground every aspect of church life—administration, programming, worship, and social justice. It doesn’t replace other practices, but it will augment what you currently exercise. This spiritual practice can be exercised as an entire congregation, in small groups, in pairs, or singly. This spiritual practice will benefit you within the church walls, and it will benefit those beyond the church walls.
I rarely find evidence of this spiritual practice across our denomination, which lack I would argue has contributed to the gradual evaporation of many congregations (maybe this one as well). But this spiritual practice has been observed here at Eliot Church intermittently over the years; however, it has not been named and, therefore, not practiced intentionally or consistently.
What Jesus enjoined upon his disciples (and us by extension) on the day they set out on the road, that injunction badly needs recovering by us, I believe. “Shout from the rooftops what you have heard whispered in your ear.” However, the inference we liberal Christians draw from this passage is that Jesus means proselytizing. After all, that’s how Christian missions applied this instruction through the centuries.
And it’s how American evangelical fundamentalism applied it, which gave us Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Campus Crusade for Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention, Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, etc.
That’s not the direction mainline liberal Protestantism saw fit to take it; in fact, we have barely taken up this instruction up at all. We are not bloomin’ “Christers,” some people like to say, nor pamphleteers, nor door knockers selling religion. But people take this attitude because you are “Christ shy”—because you have been “Christ abused” by the religious exhibitionists.
Yes, a certain kind of evangelism has been other Christians’ chosen path, but really, have they exhausted the possibilities of what Jesus could have meant or could mean by “shouting from the rooftops”? For not looking further than we have, we sold short the faith that gave our parents hope and gave them a way of life, the faith that animated so many who have struggled to live and barely hung on except for the gospel!
And, beyond that, I believe for lack of seeking and finding our own ways to interpret and practice the injunction of Christ to shout from the rooftops, we have shortchanged ourselves and the spiritual lives of people within sight and earshot of this building.
II. An Evangelism Remedy
Why should we take this injunction of Jesus to the disciples (and us by extension) so seriously?
The theological reason is: to the extent that Christ’s gospel has freed you, true freedom is seeking the freedom of others, because freedom is intrinsic to the gospel.
The spiritual reason is: Jesus discloses an implicit characteristic of the spiritual life: you only really know the gospel as you speak it, and the world only has a chance to know it as it hears it articulated—Jesus is the Word become flesh become words for us to hear and repeat.
But what could it possibly mean for us to shout the gospel publicly which has been privately conveyed to us? Just how are we to make our private faith (or whatever degree of it) known in public when we shrink from the very prospect, unlike us ministers who have made a vocation of it, and in some cases a business enterprise?
It is entirely natural that people resist, because the germ of faith does start in private, in the heart. If it stays there, however, we sacrifice a spiritual opportunity at all levels—at the institutional level, at the levels of church groups small and large, and at the individual level.
Another reason we resist shouting from the rooftops is because we are not taught how to do this, we are not encouraged to do this, very few of our leaders model for it.
This has bred a disdain for what we disdainfully call the “E-word,” evangelism, which is unfair because evangelism is just enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is no sin.
A better word might be proclamation (which again falls into the province of the clergy), or better still, simply “declaration.” Mere declaration, I submit, is how we can view “shout it from the rooftops.” So let’s take this up right here, right now, in order to be more faithful to Christ, and the better to know our own faith.
III. The Missing Ingredient.
I start with the distinction that exists between the private world and the public world—people exist almost exclusively in the private world, and they don’t have much experience of what and where the public world is. The only real example they have is the U.S. Congress and that is the worst example in existence.
The private world consists of existence we have in our homes, among friends, in our social circles and, yes—in our churches.
The public world, on the other hand, is defined as one to which everyone in its vicinity has access—“everything that appears in public can be seen and heard in person by everybody, and beyond that has the widest possible publicity.” My inspiration comes from Hannah Arendt, the great 20th-century political philosopher, who showed us that private experiences (our passions, thoughts, delights) lead a shadowy existence until transformed for public consumption through articulation, vocalization, story, art—or, mere declaration. She writes, in The Human Condition (1958), as follows:
“Besides private life, we are given a sort of second life—the public life. The totally sheltered nature of the home and hearth differ from the merciless exposure of the public life which actually requires great courage. Private life benefits us as a shelter of the intimate; at the same time, it represents a deprivation of characteristic public fulfillments.”
It’s the difference between the coffee hour, on the one hand, and the classroom on the other; between the counseling session and the business meeting; between a gripe session and the town meeting; between Bible study and a worship design team.
Each domain has its virtues and strengths—the private and social world functions in closed spheres; it is a self-selecting world; the goal is to be liked, a church wanting to be seen as friendly; the setting affords vulnerability but safely so; unconditional love governs its interactions; fidelity is the highest virtue; an environment where I can be myself and come as I am; strangers are unknowns for whom we have no responsibility.
The public world has different virtues and strengths. When we create a public space, a moment becomes open to everyone regardless of status or breadth of acquaintanceship. The public is the world common to everyone, where people seek to be known and respected for who we truly are; in which there are clear boundaries; there is accountability for what we say; when even personal expressions are open to scrutiny; strangers are future friends; the highest value is placed upon clarity and self-clarification; instead of confidentiality there is publicity.
IV. Measuring up.
Now let’s look at how well, or not, our churches do the work of public articulation, starting first with our collective decisions to build the buildings we build, the landscape and the interior appointments. People drive by them daily, seeing no clue from the outside what goes on inside—to them we are effectively a secret society, though probably a harmless one. Our beautiful New England meeting houses provide images on postcards, bank advertisements, tourist promotions, but what do appearances really disclose about us? Aside from the standard signs which any business has on its doors, most New England meeting houses are for all intents and purposes MUTE—MUTE—except this one because we have a bell in the bell tower, is it working?
Next, let’s go inside and look at the walls, also MUTE: pristine blank surfaces on which we find pictures of the church we are standing in, past ministers of the church we are standing in, photomontages of all the members of the church we are standing in.
Now, let’s join the worship service, which is also MUTE: mute in the sense of not containing a word that you have conceived or written, but you sing and say words that the clergy has chosen by covenant with you to reflect your faith back to you.
Now follow me around to the gatherings—coffee hour, Fall Fair, Thanksgiving dinner—they do their private/social job well, promoting the private interactions we need and come to church for. For all the buzz in the room, these too are MUTE.
Newcomers who arrive are met with private/social occasions which can be daunting because socializing is an advanced skill and not everyone feels up to wading in where being a stranger is not an asset but a liability. As for the church member themselves, for lack of creating public occasions, they often are actually strangers to each other, even though they may know each other’s relatives and health histories.
Churches need more practice in public. Churches need to create more public opportunities inside so we can exercise our “outside voices.” I want us to create and enjoy public moments as a spiritual experience—we should apply this spiritual practice of “declaration” to our lawn and our building; we should apply it in our worship services; we should apply it in our programming; and we should re-conceive small groups by this approach.
V. A New Spiritual Practice.
That’s what our “Soundings” program will demonstrate to you: in a small-group, public setting, you will experience true freedom of speech.
What makes all this a spiritual experience?
You will be in a setting where we are expected to speak in the declarative mode—not persuasive, or argumentative, or imperative or hortatory modes—here, speech is pure declaration, free declaration, natural declaration, basic declaration, living declaration, creative declaration. Opinion is absent; we cast out aspersions and characterizations.
In social life, the protocols are called “manners,” and “etiquette.” There is no single word like those for public discourse—maybe, “disciplined,” because we limit ourselves to just what is fit for public consumption. Speakers strive for truth, concision, and imagination.
Listeners then become speakers in turn and offer their own statements of pure declaration. We are speaking not only to each other, but for each other: so there is no tit-for-tat, no piggy-backing, no point-counterpoint to change someone’s opinions.
It’s not exactly “shouting from the rooftops,” but it will feel like it, and it will feel good. It will feel liberating, and with our new freedom we will seek the freedom of others.
After the benediction, I invite you to sit back down and stay for a demonstration I and Nancy Lob will present. It is a purely symbolic demonstration of pure declaration; without words of our own, we will “shout” with our bodies the words we are instructed to express. In the “Soundings” sessions, we will be using words, but we will learn the spiritual practice of choosing the right words for the precise occasion.
I want you to look around with your new public-private lenses and see how you size up our congregational life. I believe we can learn to exercise this new spiritual practice.
I believe without it, the diversity we seek is probably not coming. I believe without it, the religious literacy we lack will not be repaired. I believe without it, the maintenance demands of a church will not be deemed worth the effort. I believe without it, our members will be as much strangers to each other as the people you see on the T.
People say, “Get a life.” I say, “Get a public life!” We have a sign on the church lawn that says, “Be the Church.” I say, “Be the Public Church!
Try shouting from the rooftops—you will sail away rejoicing.