No More “Playing Church”

I wonder how many of us preacher types “played church” as a kid?  Anyone who ever played church as a child knows there are certain things that make a REAL church … At least in my kid church we had to have the building, the choir, the organ, the pastor, the sermon, the hymnals, the robes, and the Sunday School lessons.  When my mother was ordained in the National Spiritualist Association of Churches … a religion and philosophy based on metaphysical teachings and separate from any major faith tradition … I was fascinated to learn that they also had buildings, organs, choirs, pastors, “talks” like sermons, hymnals (filled with familiar and historical hymn tunes with words tweaked to reference “Spirit” instead of Christ), robes and a “Lyceum” or Sunday School.   These are some of the beloved trappings of Christendom.  They are cultural.  None of these, however, are descriptive of the first century ecclesia.

There is an understandable resistance, then, to considering creative options for staffing or building.  Giving up a full-time pastor or a church building is like playing school without a chalk board, desks or a teacher.  There is a deep part of those who are the products of christendom which shouts out “that’s not right!”  “That’s not REAL church!”

I am not saying anything new, of course … some of us have been singing it with Avery and Marsh since 1972.  “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.” The church is a community of women and men, boys and girls, who, together, are called be the body of Christ.  A pastor is the spiritual leader of that community. A building may be a tool for witness and ministry to the community.

So, as we move into a time when church buildings and staff may be financially unsustainable as we know them, what kind of “creative options” are leading congregations to new ways of witness and kingdom work?  These options, by themselves, are not going to do more than affect the bottom line budget.  But, I believe, if they are done faithfully and combined with faithful discipleship and focussed leadership development, they could be transformative.  Then we’ll understand a very different definition of REAL church.

  1. sharing buildings … out of financial desperation, some congregations have begun sharing their worship space with other congregations.  One church I knew had five congregations worshipping in its building each weekend.  Each of the congregations had a specific and unique calling and heritage (traditional Presbyterian, second generation Korean-American, African American Pentecostal, LGBT Pentecostal, and a congregation for recovering addicts).  What begins as desperation, can lead to a genuine partnership in ministry which helps each congregation grow in discipleship.
  2. sharing pastors … for centuries congregations have been “yoked” and have shared pastors and leadership.  In Monmouth presbytery the same pastor serves two congregations: Atlantic Highlands and Hope Presbyterian in Tinton Falls.  In New Brunswick presbytery three churches are considering a shared arrangement with two pastors.  Sharing pastoral leadership, like sharing a building, requires a degree of graciousness and partnership.  See my post on calling a part-time pastor.
  3. merging congregations … merging is best accomplished when congregations are on the same highway, traveling in the same direction at approximately the same speed.  A shared sense of mission is essential in creating a successful merger.  Merging congregations can occur within a presbytery, between presbyteries, and even between denominations (ELCA and PCUSA, for instance).
  4. no building … some congregations have decided that owning a building is not helpful to their mission.  These congregations are focused on the mission work and building community.  They may opt for small group worship in homes and rent or borrow larger rooms when necessary for celebrations or other projects.  They may decide to rent a small storefront for counseling or Bible Study groups or recovery or grief groups, and use that space for worship as well.
  5. bi-vocational pastors … When a pastor chooses to be bi-vocational, it’s more intentional to the ministry she is called to, than merely getting a second job or “moonlighting.”  A bi-vocational pastor and congregation understand that the secular work the pastor engages in is PART of the strategy for ministry of the congregation.  The pastor may be working as an Emergency Medical Technician and the congregation may decide to have an outreach to the needs of first responders.  The pastor may be a massage therapist and called to speak the Gospel through the art and science of healing and wellness.  Or perhaps the pastor decides to “flip” houses and has an outreach to construction workers and contractors and realtors, etc.
  6. lay pastor … Commissioning Lay Pastors (in the PCUSA we call them Ruling Elders Commissioned to a Particular Service) can be a way of boosting the education and discipleship level of an entire congregation.  Lay Pastors may be full-time pastors in a congregation, or they may be bi-vocational.  Some are retired, receiving a decent pension, and looking for a way to serve the church.  There are many reasons and many contexts in which lay pastors serve.  In the PCUSA lay pastors are commissioned by the presbytery; they must meet some educational requirements and be deemed “fit” for ministry.  After commissioning to a specific ministry, they need to continue being mentored by a teaching elder (pastor) and engaged in continuing education.
  7. repurpose buildings … Some congregations have decided that their building should be primarily used for a purpose other than worship.  Worship and Bible Study become the secondary purpose for the space or they choose to worship elsewhere.  I’ve seen congregations define their building as a community center … a place for social service organizations to meet and work, a distribution place for food or a breakfast program … perhaps the building is repurposed as a restaurant that employs homeless women and men, or a center for the arts.

Of course, these options should be considered prayerfully and with full knowledge of the tax and legal implications.  But they can be a step to the expansion of the body of Christ, even if it means giving up the facade of “playing church.”

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