The Spiritual Landscape
The Challenge of Proximity: Guidelines for the Global Church
The question facing Christian leaders is whether they will find a way to witness to the Gospel's reconciling power and a way to hold the church together—not just in the face of pluralism, but proximity as well. If we don't find a way to live at peace with one another as a church, it will not discredit the Gospel nearly as much as it will discredit the church's leadership.
An outline of principles that might guide that search could well include these items:
1) The global church should commit itself to sympathetic and empathetic listening. No community completely and faithfully captures the demands of the Gospel. To claim otherwise is hubris.
2) The practice of the faith and its faithful observance is always lived out in the particular. For that reason, no single practice of the faith can or should be imposed on the whole of the church. What is most urgent as a matter of moral and spiritual concern varies from community to community, just as surely as it does from individual to individual.
3) The church's quest to be faithful is one that has always required space and time for listening. In a world in which the Gospel finds multiple expressions (as it always has), the church today needs to deal with the proximity in which we live by giving one another both the time and space that was once ours passively, by virtue of geography.
4) We also need to foreswear the use of coercion as a means of bending the rest of Christ's church to our needs, under the guise of orthodoxy or social justice. Such coercion forecloses on our ability to hear the voice of Christ and replaces our fragmentary understandings of God's will with what is a perfect and complete understanding of what God wants.
5) All of us need to remember that the nature of our faith obliges us to listen and evaluate how well we have heard the voice of God. Nothing can substitute for faithful listening, humility, and the capacity for repentance. The great gift of the Christian faith (and one that it holds in common with Judaism) is the conviction that God is both present in our world and actively cares about the way in which we live. Inevitably that means that the particulars of the Christian faith are worked out in specific places and shaped by real world forces. Those forces will have an impact on the way that we hear the word of God to us, just as surely as they shape the way we live out our faith. In this common space we share that is our newly flattened world, all Christians everywhere are obliged to listen again for what we have yet to hear.
Our leaders can model that capacity and take that obligation seriously—or not. But they cannot evade the responsibility that they bear for responding. It is ironic and not a little hypocritical for religious leaders to pontificate on national and international politics when they are unable to model gifted, reconciling approaches to leading the church itself. One has to wonder whether it is just easier to sit in someone else's armchair than it is to sit in the big chair under the gothic roof.
Whether that is the explanation or not, the church has the right to expect more from its leaders in every corner of the globe. Proximity is here to stay. The world we live in is one and that is a reality of the global landscape that will not go away. The question is whether or not the church can model a way of living with that gift in all its complexity.
When I was in college, I remember seeing signs and bumper stickers that announced: "A modest proposal for peace: that Christians won't kill other Christians." Perhaps it's time for a somewhat different challenge: "A modest proposal for church: that it act like one." (Feel free to take the closing ambiguity any way you like.)
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/