Thursday, June 03, 2010

Babies, Bathwater and the Modern Church

Being a pastor at a church that is in the midst of transition (and hopefully transformation) has had its challenges. For me, one the big ones is trying to help people see that they are church all the time. Since my focus is on missions, I've tried, in my own limited way, to show that church is more than choirs and organs, it is also about helping the less fortunate in Jesus name.

So I guess there is a part of me that likes Doug Sloan's post over at [D]mergent. And yet, I view it with a bit of hesitation.

His concept is revolutionary: it's to get rid of all the buildings and the trappings of the modern church and just be the people of God taking care of the poor and worshiping whenever and wherever:
What would happen if the church universal – every congregational property, every regional office, every national office, every seminary, every camp – was sold and the net proceeds were used to establish a trust fund endowment to support nutritional, medical, legal, and educational services for the poor, the lost, and the hurt?

When you want a new status quo – a status quo different than the current status quo – you are asking for revolution. When you desire radical transformation – you are asking for revolution. When you are tired of capital campaigns for more structural imagery; nauseated by controversy over who is fit to be a church member, deacon, or elder; repulsed by the aggregation and protection of authority that defines narrow rigid paths to ordination; grievously hurt by the abandonment and refusal to acknowledge congregations who dare to be excited by their proclaiming and living the Good News; or sick of choosing better organization over better outreach – you are asking for revolution.

“Doing” has to be the new definition of faith. A “new definition” will not be statements of purpose/mission/vision or political participation or public stances on issues or styles of worship. It will be specific activities; specific ways of living that are the new definition. Participating in CODA or LifeLine or Habitat for Humanity will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do and definitive of who we are. Supporting a free clinic or a food pantry or a shelter for the homeless will not be the focus of an annual fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological and spiritual DNA. Worship will not be every Sunday morning – it will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gathered to live, study, and contemplate the Good News. Indeed, “doing” will be about living and being the Good News, not scheduling it as a repetitive activity on our digital calendar on the same day at the same time that always occurs at the same location and always follows the same sequence. “Doing” our faith does not require capital campaigns; local, regional, or national governing boards; seminaries; or licensing/ordination policies.

“Doing” our faith has to be seen as a radical, counter-cultural, defiant way of living. By its very nature, our faith is not supposed to be institutionalized and not measured by largeness, cultural pervasiveness, or authoritarianism. Our faith is supposed to be personal and divinely humane. Our faithful doing is to be delivered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invisible faceless remote committee or collective. “Doing” our faith can be accomplished only with more personal involvement and not with more technology that is better, more pervasive, more invasive, and increasingly remote and detached.

Congregations should be small groups meeting for worship in the homes of different members. Just imagine: Church with no offerings, no church governing boards and no board meetings, no committees and no committee meetings, no rehearsals, no fund raisers, no capital campaigns, no finances, no buildings, no property, no maintenance or repairs or replacements, no employees, no membership drives. Just imagine: Church as only worship, only studying, only witnessing in word and service to each other and the world.

On one level it sounds wonderful, if not utopian. What if the church were not an institution, but just a bunch of people getting together and praising God and helping the poor?

And yet, I tend to think were this to happen on a massive scale, it would end up as one hot mess.

It's not that such communities can take place. In fact, they have. But I worry that this wonderful vision that Sloan creates can in reality end up doing some harm.

As someone who is gay, I can resonate with some of what I have deemed silly rules regarding ordination. But that said, I don't want to just junk ordination either. My guess is, those standards came into being because of some form of abuse that had taken place.

Or take the matter of preaching and teaching. I've heard people say they don't need pastors, but in this new paradigm, who will want to lead and teach? If there is a large movement of the Spirit to call forth people, I will be happy,but I tend to think a lot of people don't want to be bothered with that.

Then comes worship. If Sloan thinks the worship wars will go away just because there is no more institutional church, he has another thing coming.

I guess what I'm getting at is that there are sometimes good reasons why the institution of the church came into being. Some of it no longer serves a good purpose and need to be cast aside. For example, I don't think we need the large physical plants that we once needed. I also think that shrinking church budgets and the rising costs of education mean will we have to reimagine ordination and find ways for more lay-driven ministry.But I think that at times you need the framework of the institution in order to allow the church to thrive. The question is what to keep, what to change and what to throw away.

In politics, I tend to lean towards libertarianism. I want a small government that can do a few good things very well. But libertarianism is not anarchy. I still want a government.

I think in someways, we need a libertarian view of modern ecclesiology. We need to see what of the institutional church is needed and what might be thrown away. We need to think about what matters in a community of faith in 2010. Do we need committees, big buildings and ordained ministers? Or can we have a lighter structure, small or no building and a lay-driven ministry?

This is something the modern church has to discern. Sloan's vision is wonderful, but I fear it leads to anarchy. I'm more in favor of the church having a garage sale than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


TravisR said...

I think that his idea is remarkable, if only because it so strongly evokes that message that Jesus gave to the rich man in Matthew 19, saying "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Your response to Sloan's vision is reasonable and seems pragmatic - but I believe that if the Church could take a step like this, God would totally take control and bless the Church in ways that we could probably never imagine. Even though something like this would never happen, I think there's valuable insight to be gained simply from the idea of it. Thanks for sharing!

P.S. - I came across your blog sometime last month while searching for lyrics to a musical you had included in an old post from a few years ago which had nothing to do with either faith or sexuality. It blew me away when I noticed your About Me, because I too am a gay Christian! How strange and wonderful that I would come across your blog in that way! I just wanted to say that I enjoy your blog and would encourage you to keep posting. God bless. :)

Tahoe Mom said...

Doug's vision is amazing. Your response is pragmatic and practical. We Need Both!!! And in between the two we need a Whole Bunch of people willing to take the plunge, the challenge, the leap of faith to Start the process and be willing to work through it all. What I fear is that we don't have the folks willing to follow the vision to even get to the point of talking about your ideas. We can but hope ~ with blessings

Colby Cheese said...

Prophets tend to be incredibly impractical. They do not advocate a long-term 12-step plan so that people can comfortably move from one comfortable position to another comfortable position. They do not predict hopes and perils of the future, they proclaim the dangers of the present that are pulling the people of God away from God. Prophets demand drastic difficult change now. The biggest flaw of prophets is they seem to have almost a sense of pride in being outrageously shocking in their proclaimations and annoyingly obstinate in their demands. Both prophets and prophecies tend to be messy.

We have got church wrong. One symptom - when the vast majority of a community - whether it be gay or immigrant or youth (pick your favorite outside-the-church population segment) - either fear church or dismiss it as completely irrelevant, we have got church wrong.

The problem, though, is not in public perception - or worship styles or worship schedules or open-and-affirming statements. The problem is that the church is an institution. Institutionalism is a form of empire - to which the Good News is defiantly oppositional. When we have a preponderance of our time, talent, and treasure devoted to the institution of church instead of the Good News of the church, we have got church wrong. The church as institution is wrong. The only way church gets fixed is by eliminating the institution and leaving only the Good News.

Doug Sloan