By: Nicholas Hayes
September 22, 2011
How striking and tragic is the contrast that the church often presents to 12-step and other communities that hold themselves accountable for transformation. I believe this is to the great detriment of its vocation as Gospel-bearer. For what makes a more total, more dramatic and clear call to transformation than the Gospel, with its summons to metanoia—the about-face of one’s priorities, actions, of one’s very heart and being? And who presents a clearer model of the transformed human being than Jesus himself? Yet, in spite of their claims to “ultimate importance,” how often do we even hear our churches promising anything like transformation (the kind demonstrated within the Gospel stories themselves), with the courage and clarity of Alcoholics Anonymous? How often do we hear anyone challenging the church for not delivering, or hear the church admitting to failure in doing so? How often do we observe churches bringing care and attention to their methods of transformation in light of their results? Many do not even get so far as to promise transformation at all, much less be held accountable to that promise.
To many in the church, even raising these questions is outrageous. Too often, a misnamed theology of grace raises its head, which tells us that promising transformation amounts to “works righteousness.” Our transformation is not ours to accomplish, but God’s and God’s alone, and as such can never be achieved, much less guaranteed, by our own efforts. I think Bonhoeffer was correct in naming this a theology of “cheap grace.” Is not this same theology terribly convenient for denying ourselves any accountability to God—and each other? Is it not fatally convenient for forgetting that we are called not just to be believers, but disciples, and that discipleship means metanoia? Yes, it is God who works our transformation, but God does require our full partnership. Unless we recognize that, how can we avoid continuing to live divided lives?
Among many of my young adult generation, the relevance of the church is deeply questioned or, worse, firmly decided in the negative. The survival of many churches today depends upon the changing of that perception, on their becoming agents of transformation. By challenging itself to deliver on the promise of transformation, the church may provoke many—including many young adults—to look in its direction for the change they currently seek elsewhere. Again, I think of my own story. When I enrolled in Life Together, I looked at it as the church’s last chance with me. In college, I’d ceased practicing as a Christian, largely because I was exasperated with the church’s irrelevance. I had been raised Catholic by my Latin American mother. She had brought me up in the faith through the lens of liberation theology, according to which the church was a community called to defend the poor and marginalized, and ultimately to change society. Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, laid alongside a gentle but decidedly prophetic Jesus, literally peopled my bedtime stories. Yet that church—a relevant and demanding, transformative church—I’d only heard about in stories and had never seen in my own experience until Life Together. My experience of transformational accountability through Life Together’s use of Ganz’s leadership tools began a transition from hopeless frustration to frustrated hope.
Through my work with Life Together, and more recently the Fund for Theological Education, I have discovered I am far from alone in that hope, and perhaps not quite crazy for having it. That hope has deepened as I have begun to learn about the remarkable resources of transformative practices and methods that do exist within the Christian tradition. To continue that learning, and eventually offer it to others, I have returned to study this fall at Harvard Divinity School, and there too I have found young people who share my/our hope. But we are not yet enough. Until far more voices rise up to call the church to accountability, it is hard to imagine how any flesh will be given to our hope. We must all begin again by holding the church, and holding ourselves, accountable to the transformation the Gospel promises.
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