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A Modest Proposal

How can the churches in America once again become a formative spiritual, moral, and cultural force?

That churches are not leading in these areas is increasingly clear to many observers. Other forces - schools, the media, pop culture, politicians - exert more influence on the spiritus mundi than churches do, at least in this country. Churches are having some effect, it's true; however, it's mainly a kind of moral finger in the dike against the rising tide of postmoderism, pragmatism, and mere sensuality. If this is ever going to change, if churches are going to have a more powerful influence for good in our society, we're going to have to something other than what we've been doing for the past couple of generations.

Perhaps we can gain some insight from the arena of secular education? Writing in the December 1, 2010 issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley asks how the state of Massachusetts managed to rise to number one among all the states in educational achievement. She cites two fundamental changes. First, Massachusetts made it harder for someone to become a teacher. That is, aspiring teachers were required to meet a higher standard of competency than had previously been the case.

Second, the State began to require more of its students as well as all school personnel, "demanding meaningful outcomes from everyone in the school building." This focusing on outcomes "remains sacrilegious in many U. S. schools", but it has certainly moved Massachusetts up in the achievement ranks among American states.

As Jesus would often point to the obvious wisdom in everyday things, so it's just possible that churches might find in the example of the State of Massachusetts a way to improve their own influence in the nation. First, require more of pastors and church leaders. Since making disciples - everything from evangelizing the lost to rooting the newly-saved, instructing in spiritual disciplines, inclucating doctrine, nurturing holiness, and imparting the skills to transfer all that to three generations beyond oneself (2 Tim. 2.2) - is the basic mission of the Church (Matt. 28.18-20), it makes sense that we should only allow those to be pastors and church leaders who have proven themselves competent in this demanding regimen. That may or may not require a seminary degree, but merely possessing a seminary degree is no guarantee of such skills.When we begin demanding more of those who lead us, we'll be ready to expect more of those they lead.

And that's the second lesson: raise the expectations bar for church members. Right now, in most churches, members are rather left to themselves to define the set of expectations most comfortable and agreeable to them. As long as they keep coming, keep giving, and keep from scandalizing the church, we'll accept pretty much whatever most church members want to define for themselves.

But doesn't being a member of the Body of Christ require more than this? What about the exercise of spiritual gifts for the service of fellow members and the edification of the whole congregation? What about becoming equipped for works of ministry, so that the local congregation can grow in unity and maturity? What about growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? What about living as witnesses for Jesus Christ? These are all outcomes clearly taught in the Word of God for which taxonomies could be developed and intentional disciple-making pursued. If, that is, we had the leaders to pursue them and the will to make them our own.

Churches today are exerting a minimal impact on the spiritual, moral, and cultural temper of the times. This is not what the prophets envisioned, not what Jesus taught, not what Paul expected, and not what we have seen in previous generations.

So when, beloved, is enough enough?

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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