Each day I visited with Douglas John Hall began with a journey from my hotel by bus about three miles south to the neighborhood of Notre Dame de Grace and then a short walk from the bus station. The first day, however, I decided to walk the three miles to and from the neighborhood. As I walked back to the hotel after my initial four hour conversation, my mind was filled with ideas, reactions, and…a song.
Billy Corgan, lead singer and songwriter for the Smashing Pumpkins, sings in my head as I walk-
“Time is never time at all.
You can never ever leave without leaving a piece of youth.
And our lives are forever changed.
We will never be the same.
The more you change the less you feel.
Believe, believe in me, believe.
Believe that life can change
That you’re not stuck in vain.
We’re not the same,
We’re different tonight.”
When you think of Douglas John Hall, you don’t immediately think of the Smashing Pumpkins, a group formed in Chicago in the mid-1990s in the midst of the alternative rock and roll scene. Dr. Hall is a musician, and it can be argued he is alternative, but he is not an alternative musician. He began his college years training to be a classical pianist, and by all accounts he was quite good. All of his children are classical musicians, including a daughter who plays the violin professionally in Vienna, Austria. I doubt he has ever heard of the Smashing Pumpkins, and if he perhaps randomly paused on one of their songs while listening to the radio, I’m sure he consigned it to what he referred to me several times as the “noise” of modern music.
So why was I humming “Tonight, Tonight” as I sauntered past the cafes and boutiques of suburban Montreal? I first thought it might just be a random song I heard in a store, and was subconsciously playing it over and over. All of us get songs “stuck” that way in our heads. I walked, singing to myself until I was stopped short by a lyric buried in the finale of the song. The drums and bass are playing a perfect beat, the strings of the Chicago Philharmonic Symphony in the background build momentum, and Corgan sings about all the things that he will do “tonight,” the night “the impossible becomes possible” –
“We’ll crucify the insincere tonight, tonight.”
Of course. I just spent four hours with a sincerely faithful and truthful man; a person who, in the first conversation he had with this relative stranger, emanated the graciousness and integrity of the theology he has taught for over fifty years. It was challenging, frightening, and inspiring beyond words.
Douglas John Hall loves the church, but he believes the church in North America has forgotten how to tell time. We are standing at a moment when the church is losing or has lost much of its power and influence in western culture. The trends we saw happening in Europe fifty years ago and in Canada twenty-five years ago are now happening across the United States. We see it even in the southern United States, with a “church on every corner.” Dr. Hall and others I met while in Montreal all said the same thing in one way or another – “Welcome to the future.”
The church in Montreal – once a bastion of religion in Canada – is a tenth the size it once was. Over fifty cathedrals in Quebec have been sold and turned into museums or community centers. The vast majority of Canadians, especially among the young, do not profess any religion.
Douglas John Hall said to me over and over that what the church needs in this time of “disestablishment” is not another quick fix program, not more tinkering with worship styles in an effort to draw the disaffected in through entertainment, and certainly not a pining after “old time religion,” in an attempt to resurrect a time that is long gone. No, what is needed, and what he believes the people not only of this of of every land are waiting and longing to hear, is Gospel.
Religion may be dying, but faith will never die, and as long as we try to make sense out of our lives, to find purpose in our existence, then Christianity will have a word. The culture will no longer go for words that do not ring true, that do not spring from sincere hearts captured by Gospel. “Though they may seldom be able to articulate it, what the people in and around our churches are seeking is not just friendliness or communality or exhortation to moral improvement or a little blessed quietness in the midst of a world become ever noisier or the stirring displays of the rhetoric of American optimism or the assurance of ultimate happiness (heaven!), etc. etc. To be sure, some will snatch at anything that is well-advertised! But what the sensitive and the ‘quietly desperate,’ of whom the sagacious Thoreau spoke, both want and need is something far more radical than novelty and hype. They are waiting for gospel!”
What Hall is asking is not so far removed from what Billy Corgan envisions in his songwriting – that we “crucify the insincere” in ourselves, in our proclamation, in our church programming. He invites us to contemplate what a church might look like if it took as its first task the proclamation of gospel in a world hungry to hear it.
I think I understand why that Corgan song was looping in my head. I had just spent time with someone graciously challenging me not to fear the times we are moving into, but embrace them as a fresh opportunity for the church to be the church, which is to say, a community formed by the gospel, the Good News of God’s love, grace, and justice. To this pastor easily tempted by the hot new program offering “10 Steps to Revitalization” it was both humbling and deeply satisfying to hear a call for gospel.
When this sabbatical began, I thought I would spend most of my time analyzing statistics and listening to people describe what’s working in their congregations. What I have encountered every step of the way among the people I meet is remarkably consistent – the church of the future will be a church that speaks the sincere gospel that transcends all the categories we are so fond of in our culture. It will not be an “emergent” church or a “justice” church, a “liberal” church or a “conservative” church, an orthodox church or an evangelical church or a mainline church – it may not even be a denominational church! – no, what it will be, what it must be, is simply the church, the called-out people of God with nothing to offer but a word of good news for all the world.
Which begs the question – what is the gospel that lies at the center of who we are? That will have to wait for another post. But I’d love to hear what you think. What is the gospel we are called to proclaim?