Opting for a church without walls
A Baylor University study ranks Episcopalian author and teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the 12 elite preachers in the English-speaking world. Now some of her colleagues are miffed because Taylor left the pulpit of an Episcopalian church in Georgia. She has moved on to become a world religions professor at Piedmont College in the Peachtree state. She also teaches Christian spirituality as an adjunct professor at Columbia (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary.This gifted writer’s first book, “The Preaching Life,” won a large readership who admired Taylor’s deft style, tongue-in-cheek humor about pettiness within any congregation and memories of her training for ministry at Yale Divinity School. She followed up with 10 books, largely collections of sermons, which tempt most preachers to filch an apt illustration that makes their preaching compelling. Now Taylor, once dedicated to preaching in a local church, has spun an argument for leaving the traditional parish. She currently serves a church without walls, heads preaching conferences, moderates classroom discussions and fulfills book contracts. “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith” reads as Taylor’s confessional. She tells why she exchanged a local parish for preaching to a “far larger congregation of humankind.”She found local churches too confining, denominations to which they are tied overly argumentative and parishioner expectations unrealistic. She asks, as if out of breath, “With just seven days in a week, where is the time to be a good preacher, teacher, pastor, prophet, celebrant, prayer, writer, foot washer, administrator, community activist, clergy colleague, student of scripture, and wholesome exemplar of the gospel?” Many commiserate with Taylor, who felt a step behind the furious pace effective parish ministry demands. The race is unfair because preachers who sprint in it never catch up.How ironic that Taylor, whose books of sermons and memoirs eager preachers snap up, has left their turf. She’s mentored many clergy who desire to honor the Apostle Paul’s challenge to his protege Timothy: “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching,” II Timothy 4:2. Taylor’s patience ran thin for local church ministry as her vision expanded beyond it, so she went into teaching.The 16th-century Reformer John Calvin pinpointed four offices the Christian Church recognizes that fulfill requirements for ordained ministry. Clergy preach, elders lead, deacons show compassion and professors scholarly search after the mind of Christ. Taylor has exchanged a local church pulpit for a wider pulpit of teaching within a church without walls. She’s a counterpart to John Wesley, who rode on horseback into the frontier, erecting pulpits in cornfields and along riverbanks. A proper matron acquainted only with a traditional steepled church asked Wesley where his primary church was located. He retorted, “Madam, the world is my parish!”What’s the primary reason Taylor no longer preaches as pastor in a local church?She adamantly wants to preach on topics forbidden in traditional parishes. This is what I heard her say as a headline speaker at Calvin College’s 2004 Festival of Faith and Writing. In her lecture “Way Beyond Belief: The Call to Behold” – a preview of her then-unpublished book manuscript about leaving the local church – Taylor warned of stern consequences facing preachers who offer the whole Gospel loaf rather than tasty morsels worshippers easily digest.Using her long, lithe hands for elegant gestures perfectly framing punch lines, Taylor threw up her hands, frustrated because in a short time preachers learn what parts of the Bible parishioners don’t want to hear from the pulpit. With an endowed chair and tenure, she is more easily able to offer, in sermons, the whole Gospel loaf.For instance, this summer at the Evangelical Presbyterian’s General Assembly in Georgia, I portrayed Jonathan Edwards, emphasizing how he regularly dealt from his pulpit with 18th-century wars at his doorstep. Colonial settlers faced off against American Indians with whom the French aligned themselves. In a precept afterward, pastors admitted how dealing straightforward with the war in Iraq proved too complicated and controversial. So they skirted it from the pulpit. One preacher said he shied away from “political hot potatoes boiling over in Iraq.” He sounded oblivious to the fact the Bible treats war as a moral category Jews and Christians can’t avoid.Barbara Brown Taylor has escaped the pressures of these contradictions. She got sick of finessing the Gospel and found a pulpit outside the local church where she can sound more like Jonathan Edwards. She shows how Christ speaks to prickly issues that churches would rather duck.A few years ago, I quizzed my former professor of Hebrew who served with distinction on Princeton Theological Seminary’s faculty for almost half a century. I asked him whether the quality of students had suffered at Princeton since my era during the Vietnam War. Then the most gifted went into law, medicine or ministry. The quality of students is still top-notch, he answered, but he wondered if, after 40 years of denominational death spiraling, local churches had much to offer gifted candidates for parish ministry. The talented Barbara Brown Taylor has moved beyond a local church for a pulpit reaching to a church without walls. She preaches when teaching.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.