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A Parish Manifesto

February 9th, 2024 | 31 min read

By Ross Byrd

Two central streams run throughout the Bible in seemingly opposite directions. I do not say these are the only two streams, nor the only important streams. But they are central and unavoidable. The first I’ll call holiness; the second, inclusion. Ultimately, these two opposite-flowing streams run together in Christ and in his church. But it is not immediately clear how this works. Holiness means “set apart.” Inclusion means “bringing in.”

The two can easily be pitted against each other. Very often they are. For instance, the modern debates between “liberal” and “conservative” Christians regarding sexual ethics, heaven and hell, how to read the Bible, etc, tend toward a “holiness versus inclusion” paradigm, where conservatives argue for some form of holiness and liberals for some form of inclusion.

At the risk of oversimplifying some very complex topics, the basic problem with this paradigm is that if your God is all about inclusion, what are people being included into if not holiness? Likewise, if your God is all about holiness, who then can enter in? Thankfully, the Scriptures do not force us to choose one way or the other. On the contrary, the Bible is the story of the patient reconciliation of opposites. In the very first scene, God creates the heavens and the earth. The heavens and the earth. Separation, or set-apartness–light from darkness, waters above from waters below, “each according to its kind,” etc–is perhaps the central theme of the creation account. Fast forward to the final scene of the Bible and what do we find? The heavens and the earth, which seemed insurmountably estranged…are now being wed. The Holy (Set Apart) City comes down from heaven to be the place of ultimate inclusion, where God and man may dwell together for eternity.

To express this same notion of cooperation between God’s holiness and inclusion, the Church Fathers often used the image of God’s left and right hand. With his left hand, it was said, he judges, separates, casts out. With his right hand, he brings in and has mercy. You see this in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, for instance. The “two hands” of God is a helpful analogy, because it proves that opposite purposes, like opposite hands, are not always ultimately opposed. Our own bodies depend on the integration of left and right. Having or being able to use only one hand is a major handicap. Sadly, the body of Christ in the world has often suffered from this handicap. The church has tended to swing the pendulum from holiness to inclusion and back again, each time tying one of its hands behind its back. So that should be our first point: Let’s not be a one-handed church. Holiness and inclusion are both needed now.

And yet…

The “both-and” solution, while true in the abstract, does not always solve the problem on the ground. Some tasks require one of our hands and not the other. Insisting on using both hands in every instance because “both are good” would be silly. Likewise, obedience to God, in the Bible and in our daily lives, is usually quite specific, concrete, and contextualized. We reach a fork in the road, where we must choose a way, even if, theoretically, both ways could be good. In the history of the people of God, there have often been such forks in the road. Prophetic movements in Scripture have often called God’s people to focus on one good thing at the seeming cost of another. The calls of Nehemiah and Jeremiah were in opposite directions. One honored God by returning and rebuilding Jerusalem; the other by settling down in a foreign, unholy land. The point is…both exile and return can be blessed, depending on what God is doing in that particular moment.

Perhaps an even more fundamental example of this phenomenon is the juxtaposition between the stories of Joseph (at the end of Genesis) and Moses (at the beginning of Exodus).

The Joseph Movement (Inclusion)

Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, is sold into slavery in a foreign land by his murderous brothers. However, during his Egyptian exile, God seems to bless everything Joseph touches. Thanks to his wisdom and ability to interpret dreams, Joseph overcomes extreme trials and winds up being the right hand man of Pharaoh himself. When a famine strikes the land, he not only saves Egypt, but also saves his own starving people who venture into the foreign land in search of food. The newfound riches of Egypt (thanks to Joseph) strangely bless the sojourning people of God (thanks, again, to Joseph). Joseph even marries the daughter of an Egyptian priest, and their two sons become two of the twelve tribes of Israel (foreshadowing Gentile inclusion for not the first time in the first book of the Bible!). In a word, every way that Joseph seems to embrace the unholy people of Egypt leads to unexpected blessing. His multi-faceted union to a foreign nation blesses the foreign nation and the people of God.

At the very end of Genesis, Joseph’s father Jacob is brought before Pharaoh and even pronounces a blessing–yes, a blessing–over him (Gen. 47:10). But this Joseph Movement does have an expiration date. By the end of Joseph’s story, Pharaoh has amassed a great deal of power and wealth, thanks in no small part to Joseph. And the people of God have found themselves in close proximity to Pharaoh’s rule. By the time we reach the opening chapter of Exodus, the people of God have become slaves in Egypt, and the new Pharaoh is calling for the killing of every newborn Hebrew boy. This is no proof that the Joseph Movement was unwise or mistaken. Again, the Joseph movement was unquestionably blessed. And yet, now the blessing has reached its saturation point. “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8). The moment is ripe for a new movement of God.

The Moses Movement (Holiness)

From the very beginning of Exodus, it is clear that Moses will be a leader on a very different track than Joseph. As opposed to Joseph, Moses begins his life in Egypt. In fact, he is raised in the same royal courts into which Joseph earned his way. But unlike Joseph, not all his actions in the foreign kingdom are blessed and prosperous. His first major act in the story, the (seemingly just) killing of the Egyptian, does not, like Joseph, lead to further admiration and promotion for Moses. Rather, it leads to further fear and suspicion. This ultimately leads to Moses’s exile, which ironically amounts to a kind of reverse exile (or mini-Exodus), since it is an exile toward his true home. It is there, at Mt. Horeb (the future Mt. Sinai) that God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush and tells him that he shall lead his people out of Egypt. Thus begins the Moses Movement…away from the powers and influences of unholy Egypt, toward a new, holy (set-apart!) future.

Importantly, Moses’s story begins much as Joseph’s story had ended–being delivered from danger early in life into the blessing of Pharaoh’s court, enjoying a place of honor there, taking a foreign wife, and leading a mixed multitude. Moses’s life is not a contradiction of Joseph’s life. Rather, he is a new embodiment of Joseph, the seed of Joseph now headed in a new direction. The rest of the story of Moses (and the story of the Torah) is about holiness…about what it will mean for the people of God to leave behind the ways and the gods–even the seeming blessings–of Egypt, in order to assume a new identity as the set apart people of Yahweh. The removal of his sandals at the bush, the circumcision of his son, the plagues, the exodus, the Cloud, the theophany on Sinai, the Ten Commandments, the tabernacle, and the law all point to the same theme of holiness.

And yet, notice, this holy path does not leave inclusion behind. Just as Joseph, though in exile, remained a holy man, Moses, though leaving Egypt for the Holy Land, brings with him a mixed multitude and a foreign wife. Even the Law, which required set apartness, spells out ways in which God’s people must welcome outsiders. The necessity of inclusion remains. But holiness has taken center stage for a time. There must be separation before there is reconciliation; separation for the sake of reconciliation; holiness for the sake of love.

Where We Find Ourselves

Without going into great detail, I believe the 20th Century in America experienced the blessing of a Joseph Movement.[1] What we now know as the Evangelical Movement reached its climax with men like Billy Graham, who not only filled stadiums and TV screens across the country, bearing the fruit of millions of conversions, but also sat at the right hand of literal Presidents. I believe this was the blessing of God. We have this phenomenon to thank for the conversions of many of our parents and grandparents–whether in a Billy Graham crusade or a Young Life meeting (my mother-in-law was the former; my father-in-law the latter). Indeed, many in our own generation met the Lord outside of the church in ministries like Young Life. This is perhaps why many of our contemporary Evangelical churches look and feel more like Young Life meetings than traditional worship services.

To be clear, I am not calling the modern Evangelical movement into question. As with any movement, I’m sure we could retrospectively poke holes in it if we chose to do so. I believe that would be a waste of time and possibly an inappropriate exposure of our spiritual fathers and mothers. My purpose, rather, is to propose that the American Evangelical Movement, which was and is a Joseph Movement, a movement of inclusion toward an unholy world, has now reached its saturation point. It is time for a Moses Movement.

Recently, an article on The Gospel Coalition website revealed the findings of a recent study on American church attendance.

We’re living in the largest and fastest religious shift in U.S. history. Some 40 million adult Americans who used to go to church at least once per month now attend less than once per year. This shift is larger than the number of conversions during the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and the totality of the Billy Graham Crusades combined.

The authors go on to make a number of deep observations, challenging major misconceptions about why these changes are taking place. For instance, one would assume highly educated, liberal-minded, white collar Americans would constitute the vast majority of the drop-outs, and that their reasons for leaving the church would be ideological in nature (e.g. Wokeness, etc). Not so. The vast majority of the drop-outs were blue collar, politically-conservative Americans who left for casual, non-ideological reasons (e.g. no deep connection to pastor or community, left during COVID and never came back, listen to sermons online, etc). Though the authors give us a deep glimpse into the problem we now face, their own concluding exhortation ironically reveals a commitment to the same Evangelical paradigm which may now be the cause of the problem, rather than the solution:

Our local churches can grow institutionally to be bolder and clearer with our doctrine, religious affection, and cultural engagement. We pray that God uses our book and study to encourage church leaders and give them actionable ways to engage unchurched people.

What’s wrong with “being bolder and clearer with our doctrines” and “engaging the culture/unchurched people?” Nothing, of course…in the abstract. But we live in a particular moment in time. In a Joseph Movement, we can expect God to bless our participation in and engagement with an unholy paradigm. The sons of Jacob had no other choice but to bless and be blessed in Egypt. Yet, once the Joseph Movement had run its course, it became problematic to continue with the same plan. By the time of Exodus, anyone who was still saying something like, “Let us stay and be blessed among the Egyptians” (Exod. 16; Num. 14) was clearly in the wrong.

The Moses Movement had a different emphasis: not engagement with the unholy culture, but departure from it. And this, it turns out, was the best possible form of evangelism. When Moses leaves Egypt, all sorts of “unchurched” (if you will) people come along for the ride. Even unbelievers, who had once enjoyed the blessing of Egyptian food, wealth and protection, could now see that they had become its slaves. On the other side of the Red Sea, many of them would eventually be circumcised into the family of God.

Again, engaging the culture is a good thing. We should invite the unchurched in. But…if we are not a holy people, then what are we inviting them into?

“Come as you are,” is the modern Evangelical gospel at its core. And it will always be a valid gospel invitation, especially in a Joseph Movement. But it is not the only gospel invitation. There is also, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross daily, and follow me.” Normally, of course, we save this latter invitation for later, or as the case may be, never bring it up at all. After all, it feels like more of a demand than an invitation, and demands don’t tend to feel very gospel-y to us Evangelicals.

As strange as it sounds, I believe we are now living in a moment where outsiders might actually prefer to be asked to pick up their crosses rather than merely come as they are. In a moment absolutely rife with mental health crises, meaning crises, identity crises, broken marriages, substance addictions, online addictions, and deaths of despair, people do not so much want to be “welcomed as they are” as shown what they could be. They actually want a truth that demands something of them. That is what they want to be invited into. In a word, holiness.

At this moment, I guarantee you can generate more curiosity, concern, and genuine conversation in a room full of strangers by quoting, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” than “For God so loved the world…” That is not to say one is more true than the other. Jesus said them both. It simply reveals the moment we are in. We live in a parched and unholy land. The only water that will quench our thirst is holiness. It’s no longer “religion versus relationship” (a phrase Tim Keller wielded with great success at the height of the Joseph Movement). No, in the 2020’s, give me religion. In fact, give me a religious relationship, because every non-religious relationship–including my teenage relationship with Jesus–is running dry.

This is where we find ourselves. The age of the supermarket, with its millions of options for every consumer “need,” is in decline. The age of Trader Joes is on the rise. “We have one type of vanilla ice cream. Do you want it or not?” Turns out people do. And they’ll pay twice the price, thank you for saving them the time, and go and tell their friends to do the same. We no longer have to cater to everyone’s individualized consumer preferences. Consumerism has exhausted and enslaved us all, and we now know it. Only mention you’re leaving Egypt, and the modern mixed multitude will grab their jackets and meet you at the door. The best evangelism today…is holiness. But how do we do that?

A Parish Movement: Four Characteristics of the Future Church

Parishes

Our churches should be neighborhood-based, encouraging people to re-embody their faith, worship, and obedience where they live, alongside their actual neighbors.

Background

A parish is an old word for a neighborhood (from the Greek paroikos, “to dwell beside”). Particularly, it means a neighborhood under the care of a priest or minister. Catholic, Orthodox, and Mainline Protestant churches (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran) have all traditionally functioned according to ministerial districts or parishes. A group of adjacent parishes is often called a diocese, which in most of these traditions is overseen by a bishop.

This is the ancient–and, I believe, biblical–structure of the church: highly localized, moderately hierarchical. In the 21st Century, the parish structure is still evident in Catholic and Orthodox churches, but among American Protestants it has almost become extinct. This is in large part because, in the 20th Century, the influence and membership of Mainline Protestant churches, where the traditional parish structure was still assumed, began to fade drastically just as modern liberal theology was becoming commonplace amongst its leadership.[2] 

During this time, many Protestants left the church entirely. But a remnant of non-liberal believers went on to form (or revive, depending on how you look at it) the Evangelical movement of the late 20th and early 21st Century, which, as we have said, helped to renew the faith of millions who had fallen away or had become ambivalent toward the church due to cultural trends and the failure of the mainline.

For whatever reason,[3] Baptists and Presbyterians had seemingly the heaviest hand in this revival, leading to a more independent or congregationalist (that is, less hierarchical) approach to the future of the American church. Thus, today, the average Evangelical has almost no concept of a “parish” or, for that matter, a “priest” (but more on that in point #3).

To add to this, the widespread use of the car–and even more recently, the internet–has slowly made the local church less…local…and has exacerbated the independent model of church into an individualist model.[4] As a result, Evangelical church members have lost the sense of generational loyalty, legacy, and commitment that comes with a long-term tie to a particular place. We have stopped playing the long game in our churches. Our sense of the church has become disembodied. We casually skip from location to location, because it’s all “church.” If the church is meant to be the marriage of heaven and earth in the world, we have become too much “heaven” and not enough “earth.”

“The car”[5] has eventually led us to two main types of successful but increasingly disembodied Evangelical churches: (1) The megachurch: With its excellent corporate infrastructure, top-notch preaching and musical talent, and an array of consumer offerings (“Does your child have special needs? We have a program for that.” “This style of music? Come earlier. That style? Come later.” “Want your Sunday mornings free? How about a Saturday evening service?”), the megachurch has managed to draw worshippers–who often function more like customers or spectators–from a 40-minute drive radius in every direction. This means worshippers in the same church may live over an hour away from each other the other six days of the week. (2) The boutique community church: Lacking the excellent corporate infrastructure, the draw to these churches is often the “authentic” non-corporate feel. Maybe the music and preaching aren’t as good, but they are real. So real, that people are willing to drive an extra 30 minutes, passing by the steepled Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal churches in their own neighborhoods–and the warehouse-style megachurch on the side of the highway–in order to arrive at their “authentic community,” which probably meets in an elementary school or strip mall and may not exist at all in three to five years. But let’s say it lasts. The trouble here is, despite the “doing life together” tagline, the boutique community church is still full of individuals who live forty minutes away from one another, and who, not unlike their megachurch counterparts, are showing up mostly to have their “authentic Sunday experience,” not necessarily to participate in an ongoing, lifelong, daily-burden-bearing community.

In short, the megachurch and the boutique community church may look very different on the surface, but they are two peas in the same independent individualist pod. I have seen people flee the “excellence” of Church X in order to embrace the refreshing “authenticity” of Church Y, only to turn around a year or two later and embrace the “excellence” of Church Z, and on and on it goes…The car has given us options, yes.

But it has also tricked us into becoming consumers of church rather than long-game participants in a community. An odd proof of this can be witnessed in the increasing transformation of churchyards into larger parking lots. In the 1990s, the grassy fields next to many of our churches were often used by neighborhood kids for pickup ball games. In the 1890s, the same sorts of fields were used to bury the members of the church when they died. Ballfields are for communities. Graveyards are for generations-long communities. Larger parking lots…are for customers.[6] 

What the car began, the internet completed. Before the pandemic, empty megachurch parking lots were already a common sight. Simulcast sermons on large screens in satellite campuses and in living rooms(!) were already a common notion. During the pandemic, mainline churches rushed to catch up with their more tech-savvy Evangelical counterparts. By the end of the pandemic, mainliners had succeeded in serving “online communion,” whatever that means. Already one leg up, Evangelical megachurches went ahead and hired “online pastors” for their “online campuses,” boasted increased sermon viewership “from all over the world,” and went out of their way to tell their congregants, “wherever you are, you’re a member of our community.” Post-pandemic, many are left wondering if the Sunday commute to the church building is even worth it, especially if you can get “the same sermon in your living room.” For that matter, why not just tune into the latest John Mark Comer podcast for an even better sermon at an even more convenient time?

This has led some of us to ask: What would the absolute success of our megachurches in 2023 actually look like? Even more screens streaming even more of our pastors’ not-as-good-as-John-Mark-Comer sermons to even more satellite campuses and couches? Even more of our musicians putting out even more hot new worship singles for random Spotify listeners they don’t know? Even more of our children being even more entertained in the other room as the adults enjoy their singing and simulcast sermon experiences even more?

The point: We do not need even more. We need something different.

Problem

The Evangelical Movement has reached an impasse. Our churches are disembodied imitations of community, shaped more by individual consumer preferences, programs, and personalities than by love of God and neighbor. Our spiritual leaders lack accountability. Our members lack spiritual authority. Besides all this, the demons of our culture are winning. Deconstruction, deaths of despair, and divorce within the church are at an all-time high. Christians spend their days in increasingly abstract, meaningless jobs and increasingly lonely home lives. They spend their nights on Netflix and Instagram. Sermons on screens, better sound systems, and topnotch childcare during the service are not even beginning to solve these issues. What is more, our constant attempts to evangelize the outside world betray our blindness to the gaping wound within. The Evangelical church must address the plank in its own eye. And that plank is…that we are failing to be the body of God in the world.

Proposal

The church must be re-embodied in neighborhoods so that it may once again enact the love of God through the love of neighbor. The church must transform lives by offering new patterns of being, rather than simply changing minds by offering new information. Therefore, participation in the body and spirit of Christ must happen extremely locally, with the very small and specific group of people that are…our actual neighbors.

Steeples

Our churches should be beautiful, holy places that point heavenward with beautiful, holy rhythms, that point heavenward. They should be set apart from the structures and rhythms of the secular world.

Background

For well over a thousand years, Christian churches were built in the central high places of European villages, and church steeples were (and often still are!) the highest, most visible points. When the earliest European settlers arrived in America, they continued the tradition. The skyline of the city of Charleston, for instance, still bears witness to the now-mostly-defunct laws across America which forbade any town building to rise higher than its churches. Churches, rather than government buildings or marketplaces, actually marked the center of town. Just as church buildings gave visible shape to a village, church bells governed its rhythms, not just on Sunday but throughout the week. Church bells reminded believers when to pray, when to worship, when to celebrate, and when to mourn. They announced the weddings and funerals of one’s actual neighbors. Of course, not all steeples were ornately adorned and not all bells could play Bach. Most church steeples were carved of simple wood, because metal was too expensive and difficult to attain. If metal was used, copper was the common choice, as it was relatively inexpensive and weathered into a pleasant green color which can still be seen on church spires across America today, including in my hometown.

Problem

Near the end of mainline ascendancy, many faithful Christians began to be concerned that churches across America were becoming whitewashed sepulchers (Mt. 23:27), museums filled only with the formal remembrances of a dead–or, at least, dying–faith. As in the time of Jeremiah, and again, in the time of Jesus, the religious tradition had lost its heart. The steeples, bells, organs, stained glass windows, priestly vestments and liturgical recitations continued to hold a central place, but without their central meaning. They had become only form without content, sacrifices without love (Hos. 6:6). The early Evangelical response to this problem was to breathe spiritual life back into a dying body. The long-term effect, however, was to swing the pendulum from “form without content” to “content without form.”

Rather than continuing to breathe new spiritual life into a dying body, we replaced body with spirit. We replaced a pagan religion of earth with a Gnostic religion of heaven. Steeples, bells, windows, vestments, and liturgies were seen as the disease itself, rather than diseased body parts in need of a cure. The result has been a contemporary church movement fueled by “gospel content” without gospel embodiment. Depressed, anxious, porn-addicted believers gather anonymously in darkly-lit movie-theater-concert-halls, where they’re fed passionate songs and 45-minute sermons about how to go to heaven when they die.

Meanwhile, the rhythms on the ground do not change. And how could they? We are orbiting beings. We cannot stop orbiting. If the church will not give us a new orbit, we will continue our old addictive patterns, however inspired and informed we might feel by the gospel content we download each Sunday. Even worse, if the church will not give us a new orbit, the church itself will fall into the same deadly orbits as the world. We are now in danger of this very thing. This is not to say that literal steeples and the like must be resurrected. Perhaps some new form will take its place. But that new form must be intentionally shaped, lest it become (as it already has) a series of accidental imitations of the forms of the secular world.

Proposal

Perhaps our churches do not need literal steeples, bells, stained glass windows, and graveyards. But they do need to re-marry gospel form to gospel content. And that form must be holy and distinctive. It must set us apart. Our churches should be little glimpses of the marriage of heaven and earth in the world. They should be places of beauty and silence, of prayer and fasting, of mourning and dancing. They should not be places where we partake in the same paradigms and economies as the world, except with a Christian veneer.

Steeples and bells are images for what, in the past, has set churches apart from the rest of secular society, both because they are distinctive and because they are beautiful. Steeples and bells draw the eyes and ears of everyone upward. That is what our church communities must do. There are still churches in this country where people would choose to have their wedding, even if the rented farmhouse or country club were available and affordable to them. We should aim to be these types of churches, both physically (in terms of our buildings) and spiritually (in terms of our communities).

Priests

Our churches must be led by priests, un-busy holy people, who represent God to the people and the people to God.

Background

The word “priest” is not looked upon highly by most Evangelicals today. To be clear, the term itself is really just an Englishization of the New Testament Greek word presbyteros, which meant “elder” or church leader. But in today’s parlance it tends to have a fancier, higher-church connotation, perhaps closer to the Latin “pontifex,” literally “bridge builder,” which finds its origin in the very ancient (Old Testament) understanding of the priest as a kind of bridge between God and the people. Right away, one can imagine how such a concept could be problematic. Can we not commune with God ourselves? Must a human priest be the arbiter and mediator of my personal relationship with God? In short, yes. A human priest must indeed be the arbiter and mediator of your relationship with God, says the Bible over and over again. But also, yes, this seems like an imperfect system, since no human mediator can do so rightly, and in many cases the mediation will be so flawed as to lead to horrible spiritual abuse (indeed it did/does). In the New Testament, however, we arrive at the final solution to this problem, especially in the Book of Hebrews, when the God-Man Jesus is declared “our great High Priest.”

Wonderful! Then we no longer have to rely on imperfect and broken people to get to God! Well, yes and no. Yes, Jesus–and no other–is our ultimate bridge to God. But, the way Jesus chose to administer that bridge in the world is…through other believers. We are said to be “the body of Christ.” Thus very imperfect Peter is told he will be the rock on which Jesus builds his church. The disciples are told they will do even greater works than he, by the help of his Spirit which he will send. To borrow the framework of Jesus’s parables, priests are not masters but stewards. And yet, the steward’s role is very important. They represent the Master (for better or worse), and will therefore be held more accountable than the common servant.

Of course, when Jesus told these parables, he was often speaking of the importance–and, especially, the failure–of the scribes and Pharisees of his day. Because of the failure of these institutions in Jesus’s time, it is tempting to think that Jesus came to do away with all human hierarchies and institutions, to declare himself the one and only King and everyone else his equal servants. But the New Testament bears witness to another way. The hierarchy remains. Stewardship remains. Jesus sends out the Twelve with the authority to bind and unbind, to make disciples, teach his commandments, and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Likewise, in the later Epistles, the specialized roles and qualifications of church leaders are discussed in great detail. The churches are told to, “Respect those who…are over you in the Lord and esteem them very highly” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). This same stewardship structure is reflected throughout the history of the church, though, of course, with varying degrees of success.

Fast-forward to the time of the Protestant Reformation, a moment famously rife with priestly abuses. In response, men like Martin Luther and John Calvin rightly championed the New Testament notion of “the priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Peter 2:9). But as with all biblical principles, there are more and less helpful ways of interpreting this. The less helpful way is to insist that all believers are priests in exactly the same way by virtue of the fact that all believe in the same Lord. Again, one king, and a bunch of equal servants. Of course, in a sense this is true. “Through [his] blood [he] has made us into priests” (Rev. 5:10).

But this does not discount the other important sense in which each of us have been given different (and unequal!) roles in his kingdom. In a family, fathers are not the same as mothers, though each has their irreplaceable role. Likewise, fathers are not the same as sons, though sons may become fathers if, first, they are fathered and mothered. Doing away with all family roles simply because all individuals within the family are “of equal value before God” is nonsense. How could children live without fathers and mothers in whom they place their ultimate trust (almost as though they were God to them, for a time)? If all are priests in the exact same way, then none are priests at all.

Problem

If the modern Evangelical church has been largely stripped of its metaphorical steeples, so too, modern priests have been stripped of their metaphorical (and actual) vestments. They have been stripped of their priestly authority. This is not to say that preachers today do not speak with authority. On the contrary, in some ways, they speak with more authority than in past generations. And yet, generally, they act with less authority, responsibility, and accountability than any past generation of the church in history. The authority required to give a 45-minute sermon each week comes mostly from the modern preacher’s content (and often their style), not so much from their holy calling or role. The average Evangelical pastor wears common clothes and tends to reiterate his equality with the rest of the congregation. His role is no more special than yours. “I’m just like you,” is the basic sentiment from the stage (and notice, it is very often a stage).

In a sense, of course, this is true. He is just like us. This makes it easier for church attendants to “come as they are.” But it also makes it easier for such attendants to treat him as a common provider of consumer services…services which, from a secular economic perspective, can probably be found with much higher quality and consistency elsewhere. Thus our constant moving from church to church, or even from church to some other more polished and professional secular offering.[7] Our Evangelical spiritual leaders are in a moment of absolute identity crisis. Are they supposed to be CEO’s or local shepherds? Professional teachers or exhorters of the local body? Professional counselors or religious authorities?

Are they supposed to be as busy as the common secular worker (to justify their common financial compensation) or are they supposed to be more available than the common secular worker for the problems and needs that may arise in the community? When they speak on Sundays, they are expected to speak as hyper-public prophets of God. When they cheat on their wives, they are expected to respond as hyper-private individuals, “just like you and me,” who “make mistakes” and “would ask for privacy in this time of healing.” The current Evangelical model–or lack of a model–of a spiritual leader is not working. As has already been made clear throughout this article, we need holy people and holy rhythms to lead us through the morass of this high-tech, anxiety-and-addiction laden moment. The church is becoming increasingly more secular in a time when exactly the opposite is needed. Yes, there is a risk in calling imperfect people to become our set-apart, spiritual leaders. They may fail, which would cost us dearly. But the cost of not doing so is already too much to bear.

Proposal

Our spiritual leaders must be exactly that: spiritual leaders, not mere staff members, busily employed with the various programs demanded by the church organization’s clientele. Pastors should be “priests,” whether we call them that or not. They should represent God to the people and the people to God. Despite our independent, egalitarian American sensibilities (and the claims of many modern American pastors!), the occupation of the butcher and baker are not “just as sacred” as the role of the priest or pastor. There is such a thing as a higher calling, and it does, as the writers of the New Testament constantly remind us, afford higher responsibility and accountability. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jam. 3:1). This does not discount “the priesthood of all believers,” as we shall see in point #4. But the church must be led. Fathers and mothers do not say to their children, “Do not follow me; follow God.” As long as their children are understood to be children, the two are often the same. When Moses was called by God to lead Israel out of Egypt, he was told that he would be “as God” to them. Something like this is still true in the church today. Jesus is our High Priest, but we are also called to submit to Jesus in others. If we do not, we will inevitably find ourselves submitting to the “priests” and spirits of false gods. Everyone submits, whether they wish to or not. The question is to whom.

Therefore, the task of our spiritual leaders is as difficult as it is irreplaceable. They are, most certainly, not God. But they are called to embody him in the world, so that we can embody Him in the world with their help, instruction, correction, and example. Pastors and priests should introduce and administer holy rites and rhythms, which unite and set apart the community of God from the world. Rather than being busy with programs and church growth strategies, they should be available for prayer and counseling throughout the week. They should be well-trained and highly qualified, though not necessarily impressive. They should be people of prayer, humility, and integrity who administer the sacraments faithfully and who shepherd their communities with discernment. They should be accountable to “bishops” above them and aided by lay ministers below them (more in point #4). Finally, they should compare notes and collaborate with other neighborhood priests and bishops, so that each of their unique giftings can be optimized for the further fruitfulness and unity of the broader community.

People

Ultimately, the church is not a building or a worship service. It does not have steeples. The church is the people of God. And though the family of God must indeed have “priests”–special, holy, trustworthy leaders to whom we all submit–at the same time, all believers are called to be priests. The church is for the making of a holy people, the body of Christ in the world. It must be constantly transforming attendants into worshippers and worshippers into ministers.

For too long, the modern church has simply accepted the fact that 99% of its congregants will have their daily routines or “secular liturgies” entirely decided by the world, not only by the internet and the entertainment industry, but by their very jobs. Even professions which were invented or defined by the church for a millennium or more–”soul care” jobs such as social workers, professional counselors, child educators, even artists–have been completely co-opted and reshaped by the secular world. This might have been forgivable if such careers were still sustainable and effective today, but they are (very often) not. In part, this is because they have been divorced from the holy, communal framework in which human souls were meant to thrive and heal. Even manual labor jobs, which were originally meant to be undertaken with singing and praying and communing, can be reclaimed.

I am not proposing that the church become a conglomerate of businesses. The other way around. I am proposing that the church could once again be the originator and administrator of a sustainable, mutually-beneficial economy that does not center on money (though money may be involved) but rather on love of neighbor. In my small Methodist church on Hatteras Island (which boasts a 250 year old congregation), the first 20 minutes of the church service is taken up with the sharing of “joys, concerns, and needs” of the community. Action steps are decided in real time. This part of the service is often as long or longer than the sermon. This is what I’m talking about.

Young Christians are desperate to find “meaningful jobs,” which the secular world (even the Christian nonprofit world) is increasingly incapable of providing. Such jobs, even when a “good cause” can be touted, are too abstracted from the actual needs of the human soul and the love of neighbor to be meaningful in any lasting sense. The ancient person could legitimately dig ditches for the Lord, because at the very least, he could engage his soul with singing, praying, and communing with others as he did so, and at the end of the day, some actual physical reward would satiate his physical needs. On the contrary, white collar jobs in the modern world, which may seem far less “oppressive” than ditch-digging, oppress our souls even as they atrophy our bodies. Singing, praying, and communing are nearly impossible from the cubicle computer desk.

Furthermore, the nature of most white collar work is so abstract as to afford neither a finished product (the ditch has been dug) nor a physical reward (I received something in return). A day’s work at the cubicle provides us not food, nor clothing, nor shelter, nor even money (at least not the kind that can be exchanged from one human hand to another). Instead, our “payment” is invisibly transferred and taxed and stored and spent in the internet ether, where it exists–if it exists at all–as an ever-ebbing-and-flowing set of digits on a screen. Our souls struggle to bear the weight of so many levels of abstraction. No wonder young Christians fear being sentenced to a meaningless secular job for the rest of their lives. The problem is not that secular jobs cannot honor God. Of course they can. The problem is that most of the jobs currently on offer cannot even honor human beings. To fix this, something beyond “workplace ethics” is needed. The church can help to reconnect the work of our hands to the needs of our souls. The church can help to reconnect people to one another and to their particular place. The church has always done this. We can begin again to do it now. What if the inheritance of our grandchildren was a holy church?

Footnotes

[1] For the record, the worldwide Evangelical Movement began well before the 20th Century. The First Great Awakening occurred in the mid-18th Century. “Evangelicals” like William Wilberforce were working for the abolition of slavery before the end of that same century. Billy Graham and others in the 20th Century were the inheritors of an already rich tradition. Furthermore, there are almost certainly parts of the world in which the Evangelical Movement may enjoy a much longer life, or perhaps is only now beginning. My concern is with our specific place and people, in which I believe the movement has reached a saturation point.

[2] Causation is hard to prove, but there is at least a strong correlation between the liberalization of the mainline and the mass exodus of its membership.

[3] To be fair, the more hierarchical (less independent) Protestant churches were the ones who seemed most to have failed to hold their leadership accountable for watering down the gospel. Obviously, it is the hierarchy itself which should bear the blame for this. The spread of liberal theology did not begin in the pews; it began in the pulpit. However, abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not preclude use). That is, we should not be too quick to throw the traditional baby out with the modern liberal bathwater. The traditional parish structure may offer key elements which could now save the Evangelical Church from dying a similar death. This is not a perfect analogy, but in my view, we need something like a mainline body with an evangelical soul. An Evangelical Parish Model?

[4] By “independent” I mean that ministers are not directly accountable to higher leadership outside the individual church. By “individualist,” I mean (among other things) that individual members are not directly accountable to the leadership within the church.

[5] Here, I had to include a particularly wonderful anti-car rant from C. S. Lewis’s Surprised By Joy:

I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given [to] me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed 'infinite riches' in what would have been to motorists 'a little room.' The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it 'annihilates space.' It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventures than his grandfather got from traveling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.

[6] Ballfields are good; graveyards are better.

[7] Professional counselors are the new priests.

Ross Byrd

Ross Byrd is the teaching director at Virginia Beach Fellows and the owner and director of Surf Hatteras, a surfing camp for teens in the Outer Banks, NC. He was raised in the Episcopal Church and served as a lay minister and musician there for years before a stint as associate pastor of a non-denominational church. He and his wife Hannah are raising four surfing children. Ross has degrees from the University of Virginia (2005) and Reformed Theological Seminary (2013). You can follow his work on Substack at www.PatientKingdom.com.