It’s not that I don’t care. In fact, the depth of my caring and passion explodes in ways that often surprise me. It’s not that I think the church should die or will die. In fact, I think that our spiritual awakening is undergoing a transformation that will reveal the Kingdom of God in wonderfully new ways. And one hundred years from now, there will be congregations of Christ followers gathering for worship and singing the “traditional” songs of 2015. It’s not that I don’t value church professionals. In fact, I honor and cherish those colleagues who share in a call to proclaim the Good News in the midst of very difficult times, and to speak truth in love when we’ve needed to have our eyes opened and ears cleared.
Yet I find that I am a church leader who has no interest in preserving “institutional” church as we’ve known it. I’ve said this to search committees that ultimately offered me work. I’ve said this to colleagues. I’ve said it to my closest friends and family. I often wonder how I can live and work in the incongruent place of receiving a paycheck from a presbytery and questioning the “rightness” of our religious business model.
A daily perusal of my Facebook feed is filled with articles, blogs, and updates that either praise or pick apart church. This morning I skimmed another article that gave a number of reasons people are “really leaving the church.” Not long ago it was an article on the virtues of keeping hymnals in church. There is a war going on over the future church, and the secular world finds it humorous. The Daily Show had a segment on hipster pastors and robot faith this week.
The war is grievous. It is wearing us down. I rarely have a meeting with pastors or Christian educators or judicatory leaders which doesn’t include words of despair, fear, grief, and pleas for survival. Yesterday a church educator expressed her grief over the decline of numbers in Sunday School and the future of the church. Then she added, with the welling of her heart, “I don’t want to lose the … community.” At that moment my own war-torn heart leapt and filled my mouth with words of hope and clarity (at least for me). “Oh, no!” I exploded, “the future church is filled with community.”
Earlier in the day I had a meeting with a church member who casually mentioned that the one thing her church really needs is the ability to bring the “tough stuff” to church. The institutional church that we struggle to defend or destroy is empty and flat without the ability to struggle and work together in the mire of mission and study and reflection — building christ centered community. The good news is that her church realizes that and is committed to grow in this way. That congregation’s focus is on small groups, great study opportunities, women’s and men’s retreats, and mission trips. Good worship is there to support the real ministry of community and mission.
I have no interest in preserving a building, a structure, a staff, Sunday worship, a form of government, beloved programs, camps, colleges, seminaries or even a denominational identity. Not in and of themselves, that is. These things are not the “Church”. They may or may not be effective tools of the church for ministry — and that discernment is the hard (sometimes seemingly impossible) work of our generation of faithful leaders.
I guess that’s why I stay in this tenuous place — because I’ve been blessed with a vision of a future church that is more than survival and that is abundant in community, mission and the spiritual growth of people. The future church is free from attendance and membership and giving statistics that are more indicators of the effectiveness of our business model than changed lives. The future church is like the small group of parents gathered on our deck discerning and articulating their own understanding of Christ and how that informs what they say to their teenage daughters about sex. The future church is like a group of women exploring the call God places on their lives as they gather for a weekend getaway in Cape May. The future church is singing a song of praise and sharing it with your friends on Facebook. The future church is both very small and very large, local and global, old and new, inclusive and discerning, immersed in technology and as simple as a hug …