Some Pro-tips for Church Leaders Who Don’t Go To Church | Adam Copeland I’m Looking At You

Some Pro-tips for Church Leaders Who Don’t Go To Church | Adam Copeland I’m Looking At You March 19, 2019

The Second Naïveté

Way back in my seminary days, I remember making my way through Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative. It was a very slow kind of reading, and I often had to access secondary sources to get a better understanding of Ricoeur’s thought.

One concept of his that intrigued me, and I’ve walked around with ever since, is his description (as concerns the reading of Scripture) of what he calls the first and second naïveté.

The first naïveté takes things at face value, believing everything about their religion literally. At some point in our adult life, often through study and rational reflection, we gain a kind of critical distance and we begin to reengage these concepts at a different level. We no longer accept biblical “myth” at face value, as proclaimed for example by preachers, but instead begin interpreting them for ourselves, taking personal responsibility for our belief.

In the second naïveté, we move toward our own interpretation that recognizes the concepts as symbols of something greater than that which the words or teachings imply in their literal sense.

As I read Adam Copeland’s recent essay in The Christian Century, “I’m a Church Leader Who Doesn’t Really Go to Church,” I couldn’t help but think of Ricoeur, and honestly, I kept thinking, Copeland may not be very familiar either with Ricoeur’s concept or topics around spiritual development, and/or he has failed to apply them to himself and preachers.

Some Initial Prescriptions for Adam Copeland and His Peers

Let me first start with some recommendations. I hope he’ll consider them, and I hope these recommendations might prove useful not simply for preachers struggling to attend worship on Sunday morning, but really for anyone who struggles to participate in local Christian community.

Tip #1:

If you can’t do the local congregation, how about contribute to the life of the parish? For example, most churches I know are under-resourced to help lead worship in spaces in their neighborhood. I’d welcome a preacher like Adam who arrived at GSLC and said, “I can’t do church in a church building and your worship services are uninspiring, but do you know a nursing home where I can lead worship weekly? Or a jail? Or a shelter?” I could immediately point that preacher to three or four places, and in that way they’d contribute in a positive way in the lives of people otherwise excluded by their situation from corporate worship, even if they can’t stomach our Sunday morning worship and prefer the New York Times to sacraments and hymn-singing.

Tip #2:

Get over the hyper-Protestantism. Sunday worship in particular isn’t about “special” things, but about the central things, including and especially the sacraments. When I’m on vacation, sometimes I go to church in languages other than English. If I worship in a Vietnamese congregation, I don’t “get” something out of it in any special sense, but I still receive communion and gather in community. That’s really all we’re supposed to expect in Christian worship anyway. Opportunity to pray, give, and receive the meal.

Tip #3:

Drop the consumerist mentality. It’s true, a LOT of people when they move to a new community approach church as if they were shopping for the right “fit.” And I understand how we all can be tempted into that, since that’s so much a part of life: shopping.

But we don’t join church, or really many other groups, in order to find the right fit. We join them because of the what we can contribute, the gifts we bring.

If I could change just one thing about spiritual life and church in an increasingly mobile society, it would be to help everyone believe and trust that through the Spirit we have all received gifts, and these gifts will make a huge difference in the community among whom you share them.

I’m thinking in particular of Luke 10, where Jesus encourages those he sends out to stay wherever they are welcomed, and share gifts there. This could be a difficult assignment, because what if the “first” one isn’t the “best” one. We could always be tempted by the fancy pool in the back yard of the house next door.

But if you consider the gifts you bring, church changes. For example, I know many people who go weekly to a prison to worship. They don’t do it because the church has all the perfect fit for them. They go because they have love and peace to share with sisters and brothers in prison. They gather around Christ bringing the gifts of the Spirit present in their lives.

If every single person when they went to church thought, “What gift am I bringing in the Spirit today?” church would be transformed and sizzle with life.”

I find Copeland’s critique of his church visits unfortunate. In one church, he feels too seen (I have no idea how a small church is any different from a small seminary class, which he teaches in weekly), in another he finds nothing bad and nothing inspiring. He’s right that this is much more about him than the church, and that’s because he’s not going to church: he’s shopping.

Tip #4:

Nostalgia over your “first” church is a very real thing. In this sense, Copeland recognizing overcoming his grief is a central spiritual development is spot on. No church is ever going to feel like the church of our childhood.

Because in point of fact we grow up, and stop being children. We move from faith through rationality to hopefully a deeper mystical faithfulness. And we cycle through these maturation stages repeatedly and in different ways through our life.

Returning to Ricoeur:

“I have placed “atheism” in an intermediary position: for I wish to consider it as both a break and a link between religion and faith (from The Religious Significance of Atheism, 1966). 

I’ve got a couple of smaller concerns about Copeland’s essay also, not least of which is the way his nostalgia for church is so obviously class constrained (his favorite church pastor was a “pastor-theologian” who organized a whiskey club), and he’s largely unaware of the way in which his approach to the ecclesia is almost exclusively myopically focused on how “preachers” experience the ecclesia.

But I think my biggest beef is him calling for change when he’s outside the organization he’s writing about. It’s like if I published an article calling for changes in Rotary International when I’m not even a member. And saying his colleagues are committed to “big C church but not attending the local congregational expression?” This part of the essay is hypocritical and pretty jejune.

Here’s a quote: “That group of up-and-coming Chris­tian leaders, in which we admitted that we do not go to church, consisted mostly of people who are in some sense preachers. I now sense a call to action hidden in our strange confessions. The church, through its many forms and ministries, has shaped us to become what we preach. The church has pushed us too long for more from itself.”

What is this hyper-focus on what the church should be “for pastors.” This entire essay is myopically focused on what preachers might need from churches, rather than what the ecclesia is in practice.

Also, I get it: I don’t preach as well as I should, and church can always be more than it is, so my post here is by no means deflection, as if I cast all blame for the failures of my leadership as pastor or the failures of local congregations on the shoulders of Adam Copeland and his peers. I don’t, and I take full responsibility for making church as much as it can be in my sphere of influence.

One Last Thing

I don’t know for sure what percentage of American worship visitors come to church with a similar sensibility, as if they are trying to find the right match. John Crist has a whole series of videos on this, for those who’d like a little humor with their critique.

But I do know it won’t ultimately help either the church or those searching to keep coming to church as shoppers.

What will help is a spiritual reversal where we consider what we are called to contribute through our presence in church rather than judge what is lacking from the church “experience.” Shopping for an experience is a remarkably privileged posture. Considering what we might bring to Christian community, and then bringing it, might send us into radically new contexts, committed to serve for the long haul, and will open us to deep abiding in the life of Christ as little Christs in beloved community.



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