Formerly known as...

There's a flurry of activity going around the missional/emerging blogsphere, incited by an interesting post by Bill Kinnon called "The People Formerly Known as the Congregation." A number of people have jumped on the bandwagon, including Emerging Grace, whose "The Underlying Issues" takes a less polemical approach. Jamie Arpin-Ricci links this impulse with the stumbling attempts in the so-called missional church movement.

Bill's and Grace's posts react to the disillusionment, pain and hurt that some people have experienced at the hands of the personality/program/empire church. Bill acknowledges that his screed is intentionally strong in order to raise questions and stimulate dialogue, and it certainly has.

Underlying both is what I think is a growing sense among some people in the church that the institution has moved perhaps a little too far from God's mission to other agendas, and that spiritual life exists outside of and in some cases in spite of the Church.

The pain the Bill and Grace (and others in the conversation) write about is real. I know a number of people who have been used and abused by churches and leaders. Some find other spiritual communities, others hang around the periphery afraid to commit again, yet others simply stay home. I've experienced some measure of that pain and try hard to move past it, but it's there sometimes. But what is going on is more than a reaction by the wounded and disgruntled.

I also know people who are simply losing interest. Some have stopped doing jobs in the church -- teaching, singing, cleaning, etc. -- and finding nothing else. Others are moving into the empty nest and aren't finding rituals, spirituality and grounding for their phase of life. Others are disappointed that church is more about busyness than any sense of living the kingdom of God. Still others are young people who find the church they grew up in doesn't speak to them anymore.

Add in the people for whom the Church has no credibility because of prosperity gospels, clergy abuse, political agendas and the like, and the across the board declines in church participation make sense.

Bill complains about the churches that treat people only as numbers, not as people. This resonates with some of what the media reports about churches focused on numbers and rapid growth. But people get ignored as well in small congregations, where its hard to be known or have your voice heard if you're not part of the founding family. And in congregations of all sizes where the church jobs you do are more important than who you are. In my tribe I have seen churches where new members are assimilated into a prevailing set of values -- not just the Gospel but norms about dress, behavior, worship styles, etc. -- instead of having their dreams and gifts valued. Once upon a time, people would bide their time and wait (maybe generations) to help shape an institution, but today many will just get angry and move on, as Bill suggests.

He also grumbles about the "supposed leadership" in churches. Anti-clerical to be sure, but not an uncommon reaction these days. Leadership has been changing in our culture for decades, and while "leaders" still head most organizations, many are flatter, more participatory, and open to adaptation than they used to be. Over the same time, the role of pastor has changed less, and our hierarchies are less able to adapt to the changes in "the people being led."

There's a small but growing number of people who are looking for something different from the church than it has been used to providing.

Despite what seems to be an increasing desire for black-and-white answers in our culture, this emerging group wants guidance, not dictates. This does not mean anything goes, but it does mean that, in the postmodern world, many insights on a question yields a richer answer (not confusion, as many traditional answers would suggest). Business has known this for a long time...

TPFKATC are looking for spiritual guides, not expert professionals to be Christians for them. Pastors who help them ask and process questions, not just provide answers and judgments. Guides who are walking on the journey with them, not "religious" who are better than them. This is NOT to diminish the value of clergy and religious orders that are set apart to pray for and serve the world. But the current system often sets up a dualism that causes "lay" people to think they can't possibly have answers that have value set next to the educated experts, and that diminished the whole Church.

In a world of increasing poverty and divide between the rich and the poor, TPFKATC are beginning to wonder why we can't feed the poor instead of bureaucrats, and clothe the naked instead of adorn edifices. It is not that most think that buildings and bureaucracies should be eliminated, but the current system often requires congregations and individuals to spend most of the time, talent and treasure on themselves.

This emerging group is also asking why all this time, energy and money doesn't result in more spiritual maturity and evidence of the kingdom. Too often congregational conflict reveals people born, raised up and active in the church who are only concerned about being born, raised up and active in the church. (I was once told in a former congregation that I was less important because my grandparents hadn't gone to the congregation.) And too often when people ask to grow they get jobs to teach and lead instead of time and effort to disciple them. As the Christendom system declines, it is taking more and more resources to sustain itself.

Grace notes two other very important aspects of what is going on. TPFKATC are tired of being passive, dropping in to get their cards punched while they pay professionals to be Christians for them. They're tired of using only the gifts hierarchies identify and permit, rather than the ones God gave them. They're tired of having lots of tasks but wanting more meaningful roles. An example: Lutheran liturgy has a lot of opportunities for congregational response. But a worship leader pointed out once that most of the responses consist of "Amen" and an occasional "Lord have mercy!" and an occasional offertory prayer. "Why do the people up front get all the good words?" he asked.

She also notes that TPFKATC see the that involvements in church programs and activities are not the only measures of spirituality, and in fact can get in the way of being in relationship with people yet to come to faith. Christian community is a great thing, and many of TPFKATC desire it, but the current system often makes it insular and apart rather than incarnationally involved in the greater community.

If one is satisifed in the church as it is, it could be easy to dismiss TPFKATC as a small number of disgruntled, dissatisfied people. That's a typical modern response... they must be wrong, becuase otherwise I'd be wrong. Instead, imagine the possibilities if out of this pain and disillusionment we could find ways for the Church to be more inclusive, more engaged, more missional.

TPFKATC are not trying to tear the Church down. They are calling the Church to be what it was created to be -- a community giving flesh to the kingdom of God, a community making disciples not members, a community committed to mission and not maintenance.

Jamie has it right when he turns the focus on The People Formerly Known As... to "The Community Coming to be Known as Missional." Listen:
We are the Community Coming To Be Known As Missional, but we are not there yet. We acknowledge our weakness and foolishness, as it is the weakness and foolishness of God. We are flawed, broken, proud and afraid. While we are committed to becoming this community without apology, we acknowledge that our becoming is dependant on the whole Body of Christ. While we believe we have something to offer the whole Church- something critical and prophetic- we also acknowledge that we need them equally as much. Above all, we need God- Father, Son and Spirit- to complete in us what we are created to be.


Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

Thanks for the kind and encouraging words. Not a big deal, but your link to my post brings reader to the comment section and not the post itself. Just FYI. Thanks again!


Bob said...

Thanks, Jamie. I fixed the link so it points to your main post.