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Engage!

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Ok, I admit it: I’m a Trekkie. No, I don’t own a Starfleet uniform or refer to my cell phone as my communicator, but I enjoy the Star Trek universe. I enjoy the campy cheesy goodness of the original series and the reflective gravitas of Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I even enjoy (to a somewhat lesser degree) the side stories developed in the other spinoff series from the 90s and 00s. My Trekkie soul sings, however, at the two most recent feature films in the franchise, starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg. These films reboot the story line of the original crew of the Enterprise while at the same time capturing some of the feisty, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventurousness that characterized ST:TOS.

One of my favorite scenes in the latest film (2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness) is an interchange between the hot-headed Captain Kirk and his uber-logical first officer, Commander Spock. Presented with a lot of bad options and no clear course forward, Kirk tells Spock, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.”

That line, I think, captures something important about what it is like to be the church in the early 21st century. The cultural landscape has shifted dramatically over the last fifty or sixty years. Institutions in general are viewed with much more skepticism and suspicion than they were in the middle of the last century. The church in particular has been moved from near the center of society to the margins. Worship attendance and church participation has dropped precipitously across the mainline Protestant denominations and in the Roman Catholic church. The rise of conservative evangelicalism has led to culture wars about social issues, with many outside the church seeing Christianity as a monolithic organization they want nothing to do with. Many congregations, faced with declining numbers and declining budgets, find themselves crushed under the overhead cost of maintaining facilities built during the glory days of the 1950s. A lot of clergy and lay leaders, overwhelmed with the rapid and accelerating pace of change, find themselves struggling to lead a church they weren’t trained for in an era they could scarcely have imagined. It’s not hard to find leaders, congregations and even whole denominations saying, “We have no idea what we’re supposed to do.”

Enter Captain Kirk. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.” Better still, enter Jesus Christ. “Be my disciples. Make disciples. Love one another. Be my witnesses. Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Feed my sheep.” Jesus doesn’t give his disciples (the ones who walked with him two thousand years ago or the ones living today) any easy answers, but he does point them in the right direction. He points them in the direction of engagement with the world. The night of his resurrection, Jesus comes to his disciples, locked in a room because of fear. (How’s that for a metaphor for some parts of the 21st century church?) “Peace be with you,” he tells them, then shows them his wounds before repeating, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He sends them out! Out of the locked room where they are hunkered down in fear, out of the safety and comfort and security of their holy hideout, out into the world to engage the world with love. He doesn’t tell them where to go; could it be that Jesus is suggesting they engage wherever they find themselves? He doesn’t tell them what to do, doesn’t give them a multi-point mission strategy and a whiz-bang communications plan; could it be that Jesus is implying that the plan and the strategy is what they’ve seen in him over the past months and years?

Maybe that’s the kind of church this new age calls for: a church that doesn’t always know what it’s supposed to do, but looks around for what it can do. A church that doesn’t hunker down in fear behind locked doors, but goes out into the world to do the stuff Jesus said with the people right outside its doors, making it up and figuring it out as it goes along. A church whose mission strategy can be summed up in one word, a word made famous on the lips of every Star Trek captain from Christopher Pike to Kathryn Janeway: ENGAGE!

-Bob

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