Just because you can doesn’t mean you should

Over the years relatives have shared church bulletins with us, thinking that we might find what the churches are doing of interest.  That’s understandable, considerate, and sometimes we do find them interesting.  There are other times when they are just crazy-making.

For example, my wife’s parents sent us a bulletin from their church in Exeter, New Hampshire announcing a new fall film festival.  The subject matter?

“Fresh”….according to the bulletin “Fresh” celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system….Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and planet.”

“Botany of Desire” is the second film on offer and “presents case studies that mirror five types of human desires that are reflected in the way we selectively grow, breed, and genetically engineer our plants.  The apple reflects the desire of sweetness, the tulip beauty, marijuana intoxication and the potato control.”

Finally, the fall series concludes with a film devoted to the “Natural History of the Chicken.”  The bulletin reads: “Most people best know the chicken from their dinner plates — whether as thigh, wing or drumstick.  Consumers barely pause a moment to consider the bird’s many virtues.”  In response, the film promises to expand “the frontiers of popular awareness and delightfully reveals that this small, common and seemingly simple animal is as complex and grand as any of Earth’s creatures.”

Well, isn’t that special.  Just reading this bulletin made me want chicken potpie.  But I wasn’t looking for a plane ticket to New Hampshire.

Why not?

First — this has nothing to do with the mission of the church.  The purpose of the church is to form Christians.  Its mission is not about improving the reputation of the chicken.

And far from advancing the work of the church programming of this kind trivializes its role rendering it the one place where you can have grave, serious, unfocused conversations about anything, but its mission.

It also completely confuses people who might be asking themselves why they should go to church.  It’s true, based on what I have heard in pulpits around the country, it is not clear that clergy know anything.  But presumably, they were taught something about biblical studies, systematic and historical theology, church history, spiritual formation, and pastoral care.  Why would I waste my time learning about farming, botany, and chickens from the church?  When clergy offer up programs of this kind what I hear is this:  “We don’t know why we are here.  We aren’t interested in talking about what you would think we talk about.  So, we thought we would talk about chickens.”

But there is something more profoundly amiss here.  People once died to be Christians and own the name of Jesus.  They still do in many parts of the world.  Is our grasp of the faith and its significance so feeble that we are prepared to turn the church into little more than a curator of quaint conversations?  Did the martyrs of the faith, past and present, die in order to make the world safe for conversations about chicken potpie?  If so, we should not be surprised to find that churches of this kind are attended by shrinking numbers of the aging alumni of Woodstock.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Unless you just don’t have anything worth talking about anymore.  But remember…if that’s all we have left to offer as a church, then there isn’t anything here people couldn’t get more comfortably and pleasantly through Netflicks.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. 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 is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of 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). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.