This entry represents a break in the flow of releasing the book, “Discipleship and Discipline”, by William H. Hicks, copyright March, 2005. This entry is in response to a request from my friend, Dr. Leslie Petrovics, Budapest, Hungary, on the subject, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”, an article in the NY Times, July 14, 2012, by Ross Douthat:
“CAN LIBERAL CHRISTIANITY BE SAVED? A REASONED (HOPEFULLY) RESPONSE
By William H. Hicks, BA, MPH, Elder, Living Stones Ministry Church of God
September 27, 2012
My long-distance friend, Dr. Leslie Petrovics, Budapest, Hungary and Mount Hermon classmate, 1967, referenced the article in the NY Times, July 15, 2012 by Ross Douthat, and solicited my views on the matter. First, I am humbled and honored that Dr. Petrovics would even consider my views as worth hearing. I am pleased to offer to you, Les, the product of considerable thought on the subject. I hope you find this stimulating (at least).
In the book, “Discipleship and Discipline”, by William H. Hicks, copyright March, 2005, is written the following taken from the introduction:
“This book is written to challenge the church to be what it is meant to be: the greatest, single most potent change agent in the history of the world- past, present and future- because the church was made to change the hearts of men. The church has lost sight of its vision, if not of its mission. We are fragmented by denominations, by doctrinal infidelity, by stultifying institutional rictus and structural decay. Mega-churches proliferate and compete for numbers but do nothing to reach and teach the individual souls God says “all are mine.”(Ezekiel 18: 4) We are charged by Christ to have two (2) elements to our job description as disciples: we are to make disciples and we are to be His witnesses. The church is failing at making disciples, failing at teaching the professed followers of Christ “all that He has commanded us”. The church is fragmented, disjointed, at odds with itself and with His Word. It is failing to “equip the saints for the work of service”. The church lacks power because few are following His instructions on the imperative and method to make disciples. Consequently, witnessing has been relegated to attending church on Sunday at 11:00AM which remains the most segregated hour in America. We can do better. We must do better. Each of us who confess to be followers of Jesus Christ must first become His disciples and then we must apply the discipline of disciples to the making of other disciples and to our task as witnesses for Him. This book is a call to the church to assess itself, to “re-form” itself to conform more precisely to the change agent Jesus Christ called her into being to be.”
Jesus Christ embodied a personal relationship, direct with God. People desire, in my view, require this “propinquity”. (John 1: 12 – 13). The church/Christianity largely has failed to be truthful/faithful to its original “raison d’etre” and this failure is reflected in its “lack of success” by worldly measures, i.e., declining attendance, fewer “devotees”. In America, politics has “over-ruled” doctrinal fidelity. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. This is not limited to America. “Church Closes Food Bank Because It Attracts Poor People!”, an article in the Ottowa Citizen, Sept 1, 2011: “Winnipeg: A busy church food bank, known for offering warm drinks and snacks to its regulars, has announced its closing because it is attracting too many poor people. “‘It’s attracting a lot of street people that make it uncomfortable,’ said Charlotte Prossen, Unity Truth Centre minister Thursday, ‘It’s creating social unrest in the church’. “‘A food bank is a social service and that is not who we are.“ Ms. Prossen said the program is being cancelled to focus on more church-specific activities. The church’s board of trustees made the decision to cancel the bimonthly food bank after receiving an e-mail from a sister church in Victoria. ‘Most clients of food banks have not yet come to a sense of personal responsibility in life. They are still in denial, blame or seeing the world as owing them,’ wrote Rev. David Durksen of the Unity Church of Victoria.”
Douthat writes that the church “is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” He further states, “The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.” If we take this as Douthat’s definition of ‘liberal Christianity’, my questions are: does this (Christianity) really exist? And if so, is it worth saving? Recently, I preached a sermon entitled, “Straight Talk About the So-called ‘Prosperity Gospel’”. During that homily, I stated, “I have been concerned about the disciples being led astray by the so-called “prosperity gospel” which teaches that one’s “abundant life” on earth is tied to the “amount” of faith one has and that that same faith and abundance is manifested in material and/or physical wellbeing. According to some of the proponents/teachers of this “gospel”, one’s faith can be measured by the NUMBER of Rolls Royce autos they possess or the NUMBER of houses they own or the NUMBER of members that attend their church (NOT INCLUDING THE INFLUENTIAL ONES!) or the NUMBER of square feet their sanctuary covers (not including the acreage on which the facility rests!) or HOW LARGE their annual budget is or how few (IF ANY) days they have been ill. Rarely, if ever, do you hear them talking about the NUMBER OF CHANGED LIVES they can give account for, largely because this is very difficult to measure. In order to do so, you would have to trace the impact of their teaching on the QUALITY (not QUANTITY) of their adherents’ lives OVER TIME.” Church attendance figures are NOT CHRIST’S STANDARD/MEASURE OF SUCCESS. I agree (in part) with Douthat, when he says, “The defining idea of liberal Christianity- that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion- has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.” Where we diverge- and maybe only slightly- is that I believe personal conversion is the SOURCE of social reform, not its companion. Douthat references “liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien” who, he says, “points out (that) the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the Civil Rights Movement was much more dogmatic (doctrinally sound? True?) than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship” Douthat posits that “They argued for progressive reform in the context of a “personal transcendent God..the divinity of Christ, the need for personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.” These characteristics of ‘liberal Christianity’ point backwards to a personal relationship with God, which was central to the gospel (Then He said to them all, “ If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”—Luke 9: 23) and to the Apostle Paul’s teachings.
I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a seminar presented by Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize winning author (History) for his work, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster: 1988). After his remarks, I asked Mr. Branch this question: “Do you think/believe that the Black church can become again the crucible of moral and theological leadership that produced Dr. King?” Mr. Branch’s reply was, “I honestly don’t know”. Can ‘liberal’ Christianity be saved? Only if Christianity as a sending (Romans 10: 15) and the individuals in churches in particular and as a whole, return to their roots, to its mission, its stated reason for being, that is, “to make disciples”. Unless and until the church re-focuses on its Master and fosters, encourages, promotes and teaches towards implementation His principles, it will continue to become irrelevant in the lives of the individual souls God says “all are mine.””
I am deeply moved by your response and it reaffirms for me –even in the remoteness of the written word, and digital time –my conviction that your are a paster of healing. Your words came to me at time of need and helped me center. It helped me see that from the region where I write, post-Communist Hungary, the greatest service I can provide is to tall of the hunger for and the deep and almost certain ease with which prayer can heal –as it draws on our Lord with name and is able to draw on a personal, inviting relationship. Many, many examples exist, and they are worth sharing and important to teach, largely because –as I once said, the word “compassion” is absent here. It has many similar terms –sympathy, kindness –but they miss the mark. Yet, it iis present. It is the word, “irgalom.” But largely it is only read, from the Bible, true, but even as such, it becomes hard to live it. In my 20 years here, I have experienced it only from a western pastor, who also lived it. Having learned and valued the deep worth of the Black Church, from the suffering of a Peoples saved by the Gospel and uplifting song, with little more than the firmament as their House, it was and is the Spirit which moved and saved them. So this being the end of Yom Kippur, and for the Jew, the highest holy day of atonement, I ask you to consider an unending work started in 1994, and just now coming to fruit. It is a telling message as to why and how the Black Church can at once learn from Judaism, and also augment and add to Jewish value –for both Peoples had been broken, in manners hard to put into words, and seek and hunger for the truth-telling of history which Martin Luther King, Jr. heralded In Our Time. It is this, that the world breaks everyone, and afterwards many heal stronger in the broken places.
Our work on behalf of the Hungarian Rescuer began and continues with overcoming hatred. And this is their story –how can it be, that in one place and during one period of time, over 147,000 lives were saved against Nazi darkness, and almost no one knows of it. How can such seemingly clearest Good News be drowned by antipathy? I thank your thoughtful essay most, because i I have turned to the government leadership and will be meeting with the tourist office tomorrow morning. I have asked to be sponsored in the USA as a “Johnny Appleseed,” who can be helped to wander about to tell of this positive life-saving, and altruism unheralded, and very close to Christ-like.. I was amazed to learn in my own searches recently that Johnny Appleseed was a missionary. Nothing would please me as much as among the first visits to the States, I could be welcomed by your Church and Community. This is all I can write now, but I hope to write more –perhaps ask you, with your expertness in theological and ethical training, to join me in the desire to write down and develop what I refer to, from my own training as psychologist, as “case studies in healing.” I am gladdened that tomorrow when I meet with the government, I will do so rested, and with prayer in my voice, and song in my heart. Thank you very much. May the Lord bless your many works and the life of your Church with the sweetness of autumn fruit, of health, and ongoing discipline of time to achieve His singular work..
One further thought, Pastor Bill. It is important and I want to note it before sleeping. The Jewish Community here took many years to be able to open up enough to celebrate Rescue. Of the 147,000 men, women, and children saved, every one of them were scarred by wanton loss. To expect them to Honor those whom we know as Rescuers –close to 800 families who had no chance for official Honor at Yad Vashem –is to expect the unqexpectable. But what happened is they gained the ability accept a Few at a time.. But they did it, and Yad Vashem allowed it with their blessing –for a few, less than 10 Rescuer per year. BUT this now allows “truth-telling” of history to move forward, and some are working to have Gays, the disabled, the Gypsy, the politically opposed included in memorial.
By similar example, the Black Churches, already vibrant and vital as a place of belonging and support, will gain even more importance if they can share persecution
Share…As the Jewish Community extended and made inclusive their “truth-telling” to the Rescuer, this now allows an expansion to other groups. So the Black Church will gain new vitality as it expands its inclusion to others, who are other than Black, but of that same experience.