For People with bishop Rob Wright

Letting Go… of the Church

Bishop Rob Wright For People Album
For People
Letting Go... of the Church

About the episode

The most adaptive challenge facing the church is for the organization that bears his name to actually put him first!. What is at the heart of following Jesus in our world today? If Jesus were here today would he recognize the church he founded?

In this episode, Melissa and Bishop Wright have a conversation about the ways in which the church and her regular practices is perpendicular to the one we are to put first, a table-flipping-over Jesus, and steps to take to bring the church closer to her founder.

This episode is based on part 3 of Bishop Wright’s 5-part Lenten series “Letting Go”. Learn more about this year’s series, watch the weekly videos, and download the reflection guides here.


Bishop Wright: 0:00
What I’m talking about is the gap between the movement that Jesus founded 2000 years ago and the organization that the church has become now. Jesus and his church are two different things. You know, the adaptive challenge, the most difficult challenge that’s facing the church is this, and that is for the organization that bears his name to actually put him first.

Melissa: 0:41
Welcome to For People with Bishop Rob Wright. I’m Melissa Rau, your host, and throughout Lent, Bishop and I are having conversations based off his Lent and devotions. The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta has prepared a five-week curriculum for small groups or individual devotion and you can download the reflection guides and watch weekly videos by visiting wwwepiscopalatlantaorg. This is week three.

Bishop Wright: 1:11
Lent. Can you believe it? Week three in Lent.

Melissa: 1:15
And our theme for Lent is letting go, and we have talked about letting go of the familiar letting go of control, and today we’re talking about letting go of the church. Watch out now what so this is based on a number of things John, chapter two versus 13 to 22, and you bring in the Book of Common Prayer. I just want to say a little bit more about what’s motivating, bating you and giving you the courage, Bishop, to kind of just name this as something that we should let go of.

Bishop Wright: 1:50
Well, I’m talking about letting go of the church, and that should be hilarious to some people because I’m a Bishop of the church, right, arguably a sort of symbol and representative of the church, right? So what am I talking about? I’m so glad you asked. What I’m talking about is the gap between the movement that Jesus founded 2000 years ago and the organization that the church has become now, and what I want to say is that Jesus and his church are two different things. The survey data is clear. People inside the church and outside the church think there’s something to this 2000 year old Jew. They think that he’s trustworthy, they think that he gets them, they think that he walks and talks with the common people. He sees, he loves, he accepts. That is clear. All the survey data says that, right. But when it comes to the survey data about his organization, we say the church is I mean the data says that we’re xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist, judgmental, exclusionary. You know all these words. So I want to talk about the gap and why I named it. Letting go of church is simply this we hold the organization very tightly, perhaps too tightly. We lay on this organization all of our fears and insecurities. Right, and we hold the organization tighter than we hold the man for whom it’s named right. And so I was talking to the presiding bishop and I’ve been telling people this you know, we get to chit-chatting back and forth and we just land on it and said you know, the adaptive challenge, the most difficult challenge that’s facing the church is this, and that is for the organization that bears his name to actually put him first, and that’s the gap I want to talk about. And what teased me up on that is this wonderful story from John’s Gospel in the second chapter. Jesus walks in to the temple, jesus gets really upset, right. Jesus shouts, he makes a cord into whips and he starts chasing animals and people around. And you know so. You know people get I’m telling you what’s in the Bible, don’t get mad at me for all the people who need Jesus to always be meek and mild. And he flips over tables, money goes everywhere, and he says this my father’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a marketplace. And so what Jesus is trying to say is is that be very concerned about the gap between what we do to religion, spirituality etc. And the subject of religion, spirituality, that is, god and the Holy Spirit.

Melissa: 4:56
So in the video, the short film that you all did, you highlight that maybe at that time, when Jesus did that, people would have defended themselves and saying but, but, but, but. This is tradition, this is practical and it’s convenient. What of those three words are so terrible, Bishop?

Bishop Wright: 5:21
None of those words are terrible. In fact, as I say in the video, we would probably use exactly those words these days, right, and so what we’ve got to, what we’ve got to be careful about is, is that the slippery slope. Sometimes those words put us on right. And so do we love tradition more than the author of tradition or the one for whom tradition is supposed to worship or point us towards worship? Do we love, you know, the one who we’ve come to worship, or do we love the convenience more? I mean, so this is always so. We always, if we’re going to live with God, are always going to have to live in this tension, right, and on many days we’re going to get it wrong, and that’s just because, you know, we’re easily seduced. And so what we’re easily seduced is is always making God in our image rather than submitting ourselves to be made in God’s image. That’s what we do. That’s just. That’s a human, you know, design flaw, right, that is exactly what we do. We, you know it was that wonderful line is that you know, god made us in God’s image, and you know, ever since then, we’ve returned the favor, right, and that’s what we’re doing, right. And so, you know, would Jesus recognize the church? One of the great tensions that I live in as a bishop is is, you know, trying to pay attention to the ways in which the church in her regular practice is, you know, perpendicular to the one she says is first right. So, you know, here’s a daunting thought. You know, many of us are working hard to sit at particular tables, you know, and we have to worry sometimes. I think, if we want to sit at tables, that Jesus would show up and turn over right and so what, what? What tables do we really want to sit at? And and what you know, which one of those tables might run counter to Jesus’ life and ministry? These are hard and prickly. This is a hard and prickly issue and it’s thorny to think about. But I think you have to start with saying that loyalty to the gospel means you have to acknowledge gaps. So some people say it’s it’s it’s disloyal to want to look at the church and say anything, you know, contradictory or controversial about the church, and I think they got it backwards. I think Jesus, showing up in the temple and trying to refine the temple, says that he loves the temple, loves it enough to bring it up short and to critique it.

Melissa: 8:02
Yeah, I especially love this phrase being maybe one of our goals is should be to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Yeah, and you know, to me that also says to be able to see the gaps right, like not even just acknowledge that there, but to know what the gaps are and to try and be mindful and intentional about reimagining how we’re going to do things now, that and let go of the things that no longer serve us. Sometimes I think we protect the things that used to work because of the way life was, but it’s become so much tradition and yet the tradition is not grounded at all whatsoever to do with the mission of the church.

Bishop Wright: 8:51
Look, as a bishop, I’m a professional church visitor, right? I mean, this is my job, this is what I do, and so I have 11 and a half, almost 12, years of comparing and contrasting expressions of worship, et cetera, and I don’t mean to disparage anybody I truly don’t but I can tell you that one of the things that one of the tables that I think Jesus would throw over is that we have made the church for us who are already in the church, rather than to make it a hospital in the world, to make it a welcome station in the world for people who are not presently its members. We have controlled everything so that it serves us, even if we are only a very few in number amidst, you know, a sort of a population who needs to know something of the gospel, and what we have said to ourselves to comfort ourselves is that, well, if they show up, they’re welcome. But I just don’t find that in scripture, and so I live in that tension with a lot of people, and so you know, william Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said it that the church exists for people who are not presently its members, and so I think what we have done is that we have domesticated the notion of church so that it becomes our sort of spiritual lucky rabbit’s foot, and that’s not Jesus’s vision. His vision is it’s something active, something dynamic, that all sorts and conditions should be there. That liturgy and all of that is to serve people and not to be served, and all kinds of people, the broadest expression of people. Look, this is cutting edge in some places, where some people are just starting to find the ability and the wherewithal to move forward. But, you know, one has to wonder, you know, are we happier with pristine little boutique churches that are nearly empty? Is that what we want for the future, or are we willing to sort of let something be a little raucous, a little disorderly, so that we can welcome all kinds of people who need a home? You know, and I think Jesus is clear on this, I think he understands what the purpose of the temple is. The purpose of the temple is to bring people into relationship with God and in that temple that people would meet God in the beauty of worship and be sent out into the world to engage others. That is the only reason the thing exists.

Melissa: 11:50
So, bishop, how would you answer the following Is the church failing?

Bishop Wright: 11:58
Yes, in large part the church is failing, and don’t believe me, look at the data. Don’t believe me, just look at the data and look, you know, many mainstream denominations have been declining since the 50s. I mean, you know so, since the post-war boom, right, things went up. You know, we built a lot of buildings then, et cetera, et cetera. That’s been, that was great, hallelujah, right. But then since that time and it’s a complicated thing, I don’t mean to oversimplify, it’s a complicated thing but where I would say we’re failing is is that you know, not that the average age of the average parishioner is in excess of 60, that’s a piece of data or that the average mainstream Protestant congregation is somewhere around 65, 66 people in attendance. That is not necessarily a failing. Here’s the failing that I worry a lot about is that has the church ceased to be recognizable by Jesus? In other words, what we’re called to be is something different in the world, and I think that this is what Jesus is really in opposition. So marketplaces exist, you know, all through antiquities like but this was supposed to be a different space and this purpose was supposed to be different, and so when we cease that to be different, I think that’s, you know, everything else is downstream of that. Everything that’s wrong with us is downstream of that. I mean, think about it. I mean here, think about it. You know this will be controversial to some, and that’s okay, is that? In some places called churches, they would prefer that you didn’t talk about God. They would prefer if you talked about your understanding of the Second Amendment. They would prefer if you talked about partisan politics. They would prefer, you know, if you kept it really sort of nice, whatever you know. Nice, by definition actually, if you look it up, is insipid, which having no effect or power, right? And our dear friend Will Willamon, who’s been on this podcast, tells us in most congregations, the minute the minister stands up in two minutes, that minister will assure you in words or some other kind of way that nothing dangerous will happen here today, right? Quote unquote. And so and so is that church? Is that a church that’s recognizable by Jesus? Who are we? Is a better question. Jesus seems to have some glimpse of who we’re supposed to be, because the world needs that. In another scripture altogether, jesus says who we are is light and salt. Salt and light, right? Salt gives the flavor, light gives the warmth and the way. So you know it’s not failing by my measure, you know, let the listeners you know. Is it failing by your measure? Is this a radically different community from other places that you can go and look? Here’s another measure that we’ve got to really talk about if we’re going to let go of a particular way to be church. Some of us would rather, you know, lay on a bed of hot spikes than talk to other people about our faith. But yet we’re reading Matthew, martin, luke and John, reading a dude who walked around, you know, galley, and engaged all kinds of populations and talked about the goodness of God, the glory of God told stories to that effect. You know, we’re talking about a family, mary and Joseph, who had an amazing experience of God and gave their lives to that God, radically so, and endured scorn for that, et cetera. So, look, what I’m saying is I think that what is missing, what we’ve got to let go of, is this idea that we can fulfill Jesus’ understanding of what church is by just token efforts. This is an all body, you know. This is an. You know, as we say in the Episcopal church, with my whole heart, this is an invitation to wholeheartedness. And you know, jesus’ disciples watch him go off in the temple man, and say, look, his zeal has consumed him. Well, you know, that’s what they’re saying about Jesus. But I wonder, you know, if we had to measure zeal in the average Protestant congregation on Sunday, what would we measure? I’m not sure the needle would move at all. And I’m not dumping on people, look I swear I’m not. Some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. I’ve met in church People who, quietly, you know, lived a whole heart, a wholehearted life. You know, I like to say and this will really get me in trouble but why stop now? You know, every once in a while in church you meet a Christian. What could we do to increase the likelihood of that? It’s going to mean some hard stuff. We’re going to have to say that white nationalism is not Christianity. We’re going to have to say that, you know, partisan politics has nothing to do with the cross of Jesus Christ and we’re going to have to find the middle of that. We’re going to have to say that, you know, we ought to be more worried about the state, the bodies and souls of people who are showing up at our border, than we are about what our pet politician has to say about border control? That’s what we say in baptism. In baptism, what we say is that you need a house, I got a house. You need some work I got some work. You need a coat, I got an extra coat. That’s our response to baptism, and so that’s church. And I think that’s why we have to let go of this other thing that we’re doing and get back to that, because that thing, that radical thing, that adventuresome thing, that thing changes hearts and minds and there is no substitute for that.

Melissa: 18:32
So it just sounds like you’re talking about re-centering Jesus really.

Bishop Wright: 18:37
Let’s make him the pioneer and perfecter of the organization that bears his name. How about we do that? Come on. Well, but we ought to notice and I’m being cute here today, but we ought to notice how absolutely difficult that is, and we know it’s difficult because we can start with our own lives how difficult it is to center Jesus, make him the absolute Lord of our lives, center him in our real life. But that is the work, and we do it in microcosm, at home, with ourselves, our family, our marriage, et cetera, our businesses, our finances, our calendars, et cetera, and then by the time we get to this thing called the church. Now we have to try to do that with others, and so we’re talking about really, really difficult work, but Jesus seems to think that that work is worth it.

Melissa: 19:24
Amen, and so, Bishop, thank you. And thank you for listening to For People. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. Please subscribe, leave a review and we’ll be back with you next week.