First, gentle readers, a confession: I’ve got a lot at stake in this whole church thing working out. I suspect that most of you do too. I begin by letting you know that this might be way off-base as I definitely have a pro-church bias. You’ve been warned. I also begin with a bit of clarification; in the title I mean “all churches doing ministry in the 21st century, in this time of movement out of Modernity and toward whatever is next.” To state the obvious: some churches are already postmodern and some are not. The clarification wouldn’t make a very good permalink.
So what is church? What’s the purpose? What are we doing and why do we do it?
In my own answer I’m indebted to teachers in the tradition of the Ecumenical Order and its contemporary offspring: Realistic Living and Profound Journey Dialog. This is a whole rabbit-hole, but I tell you this just to make clear that these ideas aren’t my own.
Church is people who are watching, waiting, and acting.
In the words of H. Richard Neibuhr, church are those sensitive and responsive people who are first to perceive God’s work in the world and first to respond. To me, this is beautiful imagery. I imagine millions of sensitive and responsive people, those who care, looking around, finding God at work, and joining in. Church folks are the “what’s next?” people. In my mind, all of us sensitive and responsive ones are pausing every once in a while, looking toward the horizon, testing the winds… to see if God is moving in a new way in our world.
Despite this lovely calling to pioneer God’s work in the world, the church isn’t doing so well. You don’t have to look very far to find various bloggers, authors, ministers, and public personae having a big conversation about how close to death the institutional church is in our time. I’m not interested in having that debate. It’s clear that church has changed, is changing, can anticipate additional changes. Because I believe in celebrating and being thankful for what is, I’m looking for the gifts in all this change.
Gift #1: Smallitude
One of the biggest challenges facing the church is the commoditization of worship and community life. A couple of examples will give you a feel for what I’m getting at. I work at a church with an unabashedly progressive theology. Every summer, some of our families attend Vacation Bible School programs at other churches with very different dogma and cosmology. It’s something wholesome for the kids to do in the summer. A couple of years ago, I got an email right before Christmas from a family explaining that they would be attending Christmas eve services at a church closer to their home. Every church has candles and Silent Night, right? I’m not criticizing these families’ decisions, but I am pointing toward an idea that, for many people, church is something that fits or doesn’t fit the family’s needs and schedule, much like sports teams and music lessons. Folks shop around, and churches put their best foot forward to get in on the action. It’s consumerism and it seems so natural, so much ‘just the way things work,’ that we can’t see it.
We’re better when we’re smaller.
Last year, I got a birthday card with a cartoon of Jesus on the front, captioned ‘Jesus on Twitter.’ His little thought balloon said, “Twelve followers… Sweet!”
Smaller means more intimate, less pretentious. Smaller means more consensus and fewer committees. Sometimes smaller means more REAL.
Gift #2 Permission to put Vision in the driver’s seat… and stop using the R-word!
Big churches have lots of programs. There’s not a thing wrong with programs. But programming (lots of Bible studies, small groups, family activities, fitness plans, travel) can be a distraction from a congregation’s shared vision.
When a faith community puts an emphasis on programs, they run the risk of people leaving when the church down the street offers a program they like better. So program planning becomes a vicious circle: offer more, fancier, more polished programs in brand new buildings or via shiny fast technology. Church leadership becomes focused on numbers and fear. A church focused on numbers and fear – no matter how nice their brochures or how hip their website it – is dying. We are tempted to measure success with spreadsheets and numbers rather than with transformation.
The alternative is to let vision run the show. A shared, energizing, hopeful vision for the future – not just the future of an individual church, but the future of a movement, the future of the earth community. It’s risky, occasionally chaotic. But it’s exciting.
When vision drives the church and becomes the center of decision-making and resource allocation, the church no longer needs to worry about being relevant. (Side Rant: I HATE talk about getting relevant. Bleh.) We get behind the vision, do the work we are called to do, and leave the judgments for history to decide. In other words, when we are busy working, we don’t have time for hand-wringing conversations about being relevant.
Gift #3 Relationship gets more than just talk
All churches talk about relationship. It’s a buzzword. The hype around relationships is crazy-making. A friend of mine had an interesting experience with a large Phoenix church. The relationships this church seemed ready to build were with her husband (with a manly, trade show vibe) and with her children (with contemporary music and lots of technology). When they stopped attending, no one noticed.
Everyone’s a pastor. Everyone is a caregiver. I struggled with this in my first year as a church staffer. I had this idea that I would swoop in, fix the education programming (meaning, that I would fill a calendar grid with classes and speakers), and things would just get magically better. Caregiving was just not in the picture. Then I helped lead a retreat (more programming! LOL) in which there were two people in a lot of pain. One was grieving; the other was working through some painful experiences in her past. This second participant had an obvious ‘tell:’ when she would talk about her family life and the difficulties they had experienced, she would grin largely and nervously. The grin masked, just barely, the struggle. I did a lot of caregiving that weekend and since. It’s changed the way I listen, the way I show up, the way I measure my accomplishments in any given week. I’m still growing in this area and feel so grateful for the grace my community shows me as I learn.
Everyone is a caregiver.
Gift #4 Getting Creative… because it’s required
In the 1950s when everyone went to church, I imagine that creativity was a luxury. When everything was going well and the church was ahead on budget items, the staff would get creative.
These days, creativity is an everyday thing. Newly minted M.Div. graduates get creative when putting together their call to ministry in order to become ordained. Children’s ministry teams get creative when they don’t have a budget for the off-the-shelf pageant or VBS curriculum. Churches discover that they have gifts sitting RIGHT THERE IN THE PEWS! Chefs, teachers, organizers, plumbers, drivers, engineers pitch in to do the work we are called to do.
Gift #5 Lay Leadership Gets Real
Again, I imagine that in days gone by, lay leadership was something a little extra. Churches set aside a day in the fall to recognize the church board chair and the Sunday School teachers. Isn’t that nice? The niceness was propped up by a culture of single income nuclear families and at-home caregivers.
Now, there is less of a division between authorized ministry and lay leadership. More ministers have day jobs to pay the bills. We are getting rid of the idea that being called to ministry requires a Rev in front of your name. These are “fighting words” for some of my friends and colleagues, and this warrants much more digital ink, but this is what I see.
Additionally, despite the necessity of intensive volunteer work and expertise and involvement, there are fewer June Cleavers in our pews. There’s a squeeze of time that we are all living with. AND YET… I see busy and passionate people at board and team meetings every week, prioritizing God’s work over the millions of distractions technology and culture afford us.
Church is people who are watching and waiting – looking toward the margins to see the next place where God is at work. Church is people who are acting – serving peace and justice on behalf of all. These pioneering actions continue to happen despite the naysayers who are ready to write the church’s obituary. A smaller church for postmodernity can be MUST BE a visioning church, a caring church, a countercultural church, a serving church.
I hope I’m at least a little bit right. I’m leaning in with this church thing. Peace to all.