Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
At the end of April, I will be in Detroit Michigan for two days as a member of the denomination’s General Assembly Nominations Committee. I am going to stretch my time and stay the weekend with my brother, so that I can preach at his Pentecostal church. We’ve decided to try a tag team sermon! I’m going to begin the sermon with the exegesis work, and then he is going to take it into the stratosphere with his Pentecostal emotionalism! We’ve never done this before, but we think the Spirit will be working with us and with God’s people on that day.
One of the things I enjoy about my brother’s church is the liturgy. There is an order to the service, but there is space between the liturgical pieces. I believe it is in these spaces that the Spirit moves. It is the pause after the sermon- a pause that allows for time of reflection. It is the moments after the song which gives people time to process what they have just experienced. These spaces are a testament to our limitations and God’s possibility.
In his book, Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World, Gil Rendle references John Wimmer of the Lilly Endowment in using the phrase, “Functional Atheism.” He writes, The functional atheist is the one who speaks about God as the active agent of salvation in the life of individuals and in producing a wholeness in the world but who then assumes that nothing is going to change unless and until he or she puts his or her hand (and resources) to it.”
This Lenten season I’m realizing the ways in which I am experiencing the shadow of functional atheism in my life and work. For example, I believe in strategic planning. The presbytery has goals with observable metrics. But when we believe our goals can only happen if we put our hands and resources to them, we need to be careful. When I find myself living a life that doesn’t allow space for the Spirit to work, then I may be living as a functional atheist.
We plan and we pray. We act and we believe.
This Lenten season I also find myself facing the unavoidable question of “Who is God to me now?” And “Where is God moving in my life and in this presbytery?” I am challenged to make space for the Spirit to move and lead us into our future. Gil puts it best, “The hubris of organizational leaders who fall to the trap of functional atheism, assuming that the future is to be shaped by their own hands rather than God’s, will humble even the most skilled. A significant portion of the substantive work of quietly courageous leaders is to provide for the space and learning found in the mystery of the hand of God that will not only form the world differently in the future but will also surprise us in the process.” Amen and Amen.
Rev. Craig M. Howard