THIRTEEN YEARS AGO I became the pastor of a downtown church that had once been a major force in the community. At one time, 2,000 people filled its huge sanctuary on Sunday mornings. Young people from across the metropolitan area flocked to its midweek services, and the pastor's sermons were frequently printed in the newspaper.
But by the time I became pastor, only a few doors were open on Sundays for the parishioners to make their way to the worship space. Visitors were not expected. Outreach programs had long been abandoned.
During the week, the church building was home to a number of social service programs that served indigent senior citizens and street people. The programs probably did some good, but they were operated by an unsupervised and minimal staff. Public funds were misused, money was skimmed from the church endowment fund, and a black-market trade in government food was flourishing.
One morning soon after I arrived at the church I entered the building to meet Betty, a prostitute, who was waiting for me on the inside stairs. She had unbuttoned her blouse and pulled it back. "Reverend, is there anything I can do for you?" It was clear from Betty's question that she did not expect this church or any man with the title "Reverend" to be much different from any other place she frequented or any other person that paid any attention to her.
It is into such a broken world that Christ came. The manner in which he faced that world was revelatory then. The record of it continues to be so. But in this age of megachurch mania and TV evangelism, the essence of Jesus' ministry is sometimes difficult to see. Both the record of that witness and its present form are obscured not only by the electronic sounds of churches trying to be relevant, but by the silence emanating from liberal Protestants.
In some places the liberal, mainline churches are cowed by the contemporary image of "successful" ministry and church growth. In others, a remnant of the mainline talks to itself about programs and issues that could mean a great deal, but are understood by fewer and fewer folks.
I can't imagine, for example, that Christ led one discussion or taught one seminar on catechesis. The people to whom he ministered and with whom he shared ministry did not read scripture. Some may have known certain stories within the tradition, but most of the multitudes who sought him out were disconnected from the religious tradition.
I do not believe that Jesus spent a great deal of time leading organized Bible studies or offering lectures on hermeneutics. While he is said to have opened the minds of his disciples to the scriptures, his canon of scripture was much smaller than the one we argue about now. What canon existed was largely memorized, and known by a very small number of privileged people.
Further, I do not believe that there was much going on in the way of spiritual formation. While people may have hungered for some sense that life mattered and that their lives mattered, most were probably just anxious about surviving. Our stress on spiritual development and on offering people a variety of meaningful programs would not have occurred to most of the those who pressed in to listen to Jesus. Having no concept of lugged individualism and personal rights, they hoped simply that they would not suffer. Rather than questioning God's plan for them, they merely hoped, I suspect, that they might lead a reasonably healthy life, free from wars brought about by petty, self-righteous government and religious officials. Into this land of conquerors, marauders, dissidents, extremists and peasants, Jesus came to minister, enliven and transform.
The mainline tradition knows all this. It can offer a marvelous alternative to the Grand Inquisitor model of Christian thought so prevalent in televangelism. The message we have is more than able to be a balm in Gilead. So why do we cover it up with insider jargon? …