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Presidential Perspective: The Concessions of the Church

Philip AmersonImagine my surprise when I opened the newspaper. While serving as a parish pastor, a reporter asked for my summer reading list. I mentioned five or six books, mostly books that had been stacked for months unread on my nightstand. These became my “summer reading list.” That weekend I opened the newspaper to the headline “Books Recommended for Summer Reading.” There was my list—with a typo
in the very first title! It caused me to laugh out loud. Instead of The Confessions of St. Augustine, there had been a communications glitch, and the title of this Christian classic had been changed to The Concessions of St. Augustine.

I am recently returned from my yearly spring pilgrimage to United Methodist annual conferences. As I visited alums and encouraged future students, there was also time to “listen in” on the hopes and challenges in the church. I listened to reports on evolving ministries. Often I was inspired and, I confess, on more than one occasion I was disappointed.

My distress can be appropriately titled “the concessions of the church.” Too often I heard desperation to try something, anything, to increase attendance and membership in congregations. Too often strategies appeared to be “the concessions of the church”rather than a faithful witness to Christ. There were concessions out of fear, concessions to avoid conflict, concessions for ideological purity or to a new gimmick or marketing strategy.

You may be wondering if I can give you an example of what I mean by “concessions of the church.” Yes. In one gathering I listened as an exuberant young person proudly announced a new mission project. I couldn’t wait to hear what was behind this enthusiasm. The mission project was—a car wash. The young person asked, “What is more important than building strong congregations?” I waited, waited for a reference to feeding the hungry poor, educating children in Afghanistan, or digging wells for people without water in the Sudan. Nope. None of that. Instead, mission had become a car wash for “my congregation.” And what was the good news? Only this—new members or visitors got their car wash free! It was a promotional technique.

I was struck by how this differed from sentiments of the hymn written by our own Professor Georgia Harkness for the Second World Council of Churches gathering on our campus in 1954. She penned:

Hope of the world, afoot on dusty highways, showing to wandering souls the path of light, walk thou beside us lest the tempting byways lure us away from thee to endless night.

Somehow the car wash theology turned the great Missio Dei, the activity and attribute of God in the world, into a strategy for washed and polished automobiles. We have diminished God’s love for all into suds for a few—those few who can help our local church grow. I understand the importance of congregational vitality, and I know my adolescent theology wasn’t much better than what was being expressed by this enthusiastic youngster. Outcomes are important, but there is a deeper question—for what purpose? My experience as pastor taught me that when we reached beyond our walls and sought to be where God’s purposes were expressed by active love in the world, a congregation’s health and vitality were improved. A congregation is not an end in itself but an instrument, a dynamic embodiment, of God’s love and reconciliation.

And, you may ask, what inspired me at these conferences? It was the work of those who saw strong congregations as a means to an end. I found many of these folks are graduates of Garrett-Evangelical. They understood what Dietrich Bonhoeffer put so succinctly many years ago: “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”

I was inspired watching our graduates being ordained. I was inspired as they were sent out to places of ministry. I am aware that our graduates are making a difference as pastors, youth ministers, and university chaplains. They provide a theology for the exuberant young and old more profound than mission as a car wash. We need these witnesses and others in changing our concessions into confessions of faith.

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