The New Clericalism


I’d like to follow up my previous post with some more thoughts on where we find ourselves in history as North American Christians. I believe that our time closely resembles the time of the reformers, and because of that the church is in need of some prophetic voices. Thankfully, they’re out there if we know where to look (and listen) for them.

James White, one of the most prolific and respected scholars of Christian history, notes that in the middle ages monastic life was the center of social stability (James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 77). In the medieval period, the church experienced an explosion of growth for several reasons. Crusades, conquests, and colonization caused the spread of western civilization to farther reaches of the known world. In these newly formed communities, to use White’s language, the monastery was the center of society. Monasteries were guardians not only of faith and devotion to God, but of education and learning itself.

The positive side of monastic life was that monks had one occupation: worship. Their lives were spent in constant prayer, meditation, and devotion to God. The monk’s average day would be dominated by prayer and study, with monastic orders assembling for prayer at all hours of the day and night (times decided by the monastic prayer “offices”). This lifestyle produced a wonderful devotion to God but was unrealistic for most people outside the monastery.

The monastic life developed into the founding many cathedral schools and universities. Again, White sums it up well: “The thirteenth century saw major contributions of scholastic theologians in helping the church to make up their minds about what Christians experienced in worship” (White, 77). White continues by saying that, despite the development of doctrines concerning Christian faith and sacraments, the negative side was an emphasis on the intellect in Christian and sacramental practice. The way was being paved for the coming age of Enlightenment, where Reason and Intellect reigned supreme.

Note here the schism that is created by a society of people who have nothing to do but study the scriptures, pray, meditate and think about all things theological. Add to that schism the gap between the educated and the uneducated, a gap that was wide indeed in the middle ages. You can see why worship became a spectacle to be observed rather than an event to participate in.

Before I get too far into criticizing modern education as we know it, let me point out the obvious: I wouldn’t be writing this (and you wouldn’t be reading it) if these developments in education and literacy hadn’t occurred. So for that we must be grateful. Further, the contemporary equivalent to medieval monks might just be scholars and ministers, people who, in the eyes of the general public, have “nothing better to do” than to “sit around” and pray, meditate, and study. If so, I’m part of that group.

So I am by no means condemning education or a religious devotional life. I would simply like to call into the question the gap that this creates between “us” and “them,” the ones who “get it” and the ones who “don’t.” The constant flow of the gospel is inward to our devotional and educational life, and then outward to the cultures in which we live.

The heart behind the reformation was to close this gap between the educated (and religious) “elite” and the “common” person. Thus Luther and others argued for a worship service (mass) in the common language, for songs in the language (and well-known tunes) of the people, and most importantly for the scriptures in the language of the people.

The reason I believe this is needed once again in our time is because of what I’m calling “new clericalism” happening in the church today, gaps between the “religious elite” and the “common” person. This happens on two levels. One level is the Christian subculture of “Christian-eze,” language and products that are meant only for consumption by people on the “inside” of that subculture (Christians). Perhaps at a certain point in our history the Christian story was pervasive enough for this not to be divisive, but that time is passing. Christendom (the widespread acceptance of/knowledge of/practice of Christianity) is ending in America, and many would say it has already ended. We need to restore the lingua franca that helps real people know what the real God is really saying to them.

The second level of this clerical divide happens within the church itself, with the proliferation of so many “professional” pastors, speakers and musicians. Again, I want to be careful here because I am a huge fan of excellence and quality. Let me be clear: We should work our tails off to sound great when we sing and play and to communicate effectively and powerfully when we preach. But isn’t there a point when the divide becomes so great it becomes unreachable? If our sermons, sound or music is so polished, precise and sterile is seems more robotic than human, isn’t there a disconnect? Consider the difference between putting a quarter in one of those antique self-playing pianos and hearing someone play a piece using their developed skill. Mistakes? Maybe. Heart? Definitely. Despite the latest (or oldest) “robot with a soul” film, robots can’t be people. Unreachable runs the risk of being unreal to people’s real lives.

So what I’m arguing for is a way of being Christian that models the incarnation. Jesus came and “took on flesh,” wrapping himself up in the language and way of life of people. I want to see a restoration of these “common” preachers, speakers and musicians. This means working hard to reverse the all-too-natural human tendency to create a divide between “the stage” and “the people.” Singing in church isn’t a concert, so we ought not work so hard (or spend so much money) to make it one. Preaching isn’t a spectacle of your skill as a scholar or speaker, it is in fact worship. Bob Webber writes, “Preaching, of course, is what we do in worship. We proclaim God’s story, remembering his mighty deeds of salvation” (Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 177). I think we need more men and women who represent God with excellence but with authenticity and a closeness you can feel and touch. Isn’t this what was said of the disciples when they stood before council in Acts 4, that they were common men touched with the power of the Holy Spirit? By the Spirit’s power, let’s close the gap.

The New Illiteracy

6a00d83451d81c69e2016303b25796970d-400wiIn the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant reformers turned the tide of Christianity.
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others boldly stood up and spoke out to influence change in the way the Christian church operated. One of the complaints of the reformers was that people who attended worship didn’t understand anything happening in the service. At that time the Catholic mass was in Latin, so unless you spoke Latin (and hardly anyone did outside of the clergy), you were there to basically observe the worship events and receive a vaguely understood “blessing” of some kind.

If you know any church history, you know that many of these errors were corrected through the translation of the mass, the Scripture and the songs into the vernacular language of the people. These reformation efforts have resulted in several centuries of people coming to church and at least having the ability to understand (access) what was going on.

Historians please forgive me: I am painting with very broad strokes for the sake of time. But here is my point: I believe that we are once again, like the reformers, living in a time of what I will call a “new illiteracy.” We have some work to do to overcome this obstacle.


Many evangelical churches operate on this assumption: people are repulsed by religious language and religious tradition that they do not understand; thus we must formulate our ministry and programs around what they can understand. This of course comes from a wonderful desire to make church accessible, and it is a work that must be done. Christian worship must be contextual to be effective. But, like any good thing, we can go too far. When taken the extreme, this desire to “meet your audience” results in what has been called the “attractional” or “seeker” model of ministry. While there are many denominations that have been formed around this approach, much of the church in America has been affected.

For example, I have attended many churches with services like this: you walk in to a worship space and there are some announcements on screens or music in the room; there is a song set sung about/to a certain “you” and “your love” and how it “never lets go;” more announcements; a forty minute “talk” about how to live a better life as a parent/citizen/worker; prayer and offering; dismissal (“have a great week!”).

I am at risk of sounding overly critical here, but this is not my intent. I do not mean to disrespect or discredit my fellow laborers in the ministry of the gospel. There are many positive traits to this style of ministry and many who have come to faith as a result. My criticism is meant to identify an assumption that is being made in this model.

Perhaps a limited analogy will help: Let’s say ministers are math teachers. If we assume students don’t like math but are still forced to come to math class, our job as math teachers would be to make math more interesting, more applicable to the lives of our students (so far so good). But if we stop talking about addition, subtraction, equations and fractions, hoping our students will pick up math skills by osmosis, we start running into trouble.

Back to ministry now. Should we assume that people know who this “you” is that we are talking about and singing about or that they will eventually figure it out? Can we assume that people understand why this group has gathered in this place, or what it means to follow Christ as a disciple? I’m not sure they do.

I fear that, just as in the time of the reformers,  church-goers do two simple things: they come to observe what is happening (the production) and to receive a blessing of some kind (this blessing may be a piece of advice on how to be better at “x,” or a positive feeling as a result of the experience. This is evident by the common post-church conversation, “what did you get out of it?”).
People need to have the gospel intelligently told to them, the story of God who creates, redeems and recreates the world (and the entire cosmos), in a language they understand (their context). If that’s not happening, we in ministry shouldn’t feel like we are succeeding, no matter how many people show up.

As America becomes an increasingly secular society, it seems clear to me that what is needed is not less of the language and ritual that makes Christian worship distinct, but more of it–a LOT more.

When we gather for worship, people need to understand why we are here – that God has made us a people in Christ and we gather as a response to his call and command. People need to know who this “You” is in the songs that shows us love and accepts us as we are, that it is none other that the Triune God of the Bible – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and that this love that He has shown came through a brutal and tortuous cross that killed God’s only Son. People need to know that they have a part to play in this gathering, in the telling and unfolding of this great story, and that when they leave they aren’t simply scattering to random places to “do their thing,” but are actually sent out by God to do his work in the world. How will they know unless we tell them? We need to say the why, the what and the who, and we need to say it over, and over, and over again.

I am not an advocate for returning to religious abuses or empty tradition. But we are living in a time of rampant and increasing illiteracy to the things of God. Not to mention that as Christians we are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” and need to be reminded of these things just as much as the next person. My prayer is that as ministers we are diligent to KNOW the Story and TELL the Story as we gather to DO the Story in worship.