8.27.2014

Reorganizing Church

Welcome Church "Welcome Table" 2013 by (C) Bob Fisher

David Lose, new president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, put up a thoughtful post earlier this month titled "What Role Does the Church Play in Our Lives?"

It's well worth a read. There are a couple of points in the post and its comments that I want to reflect upon:
Given how many other groups and movements legitimately lay claim to our allegiance today, can the Church ever expect to exert the level of influence in our lives that it once did?
When I first came to the church in the 1970s I recall folks at the small Lutheran parish that I joined wistfully recalling "Church Night," the idea that community groups -- even the schools -- would block off Wednesday nights (in our town) to kids to be at church events. The actual practice was long gone, but the sense of entitlement to it remained. Similarly I still hear church folks complaining that youth sports and other civic programs don't respect "church time" on Sundays. But the days of "Blue laws" are over and for many people catching up on laundry and chores, and even sleeping in, don't respect "church time," either.

So I don't think the church can "expect" to exert its former level of influence. It might earn some of that respect back, however, by creating spaces where people in the community can explore their doubts, talk about big issues, and maybe experience helpful spiritual practices without being expected to immediately become just like the people in the church.
What, then, do we expect of the church? Do we expect it to be “first among equals,” taking priority over every other affiliation (even when we often devote more time, energy, and money to other groups)? Do we expect it to help bring our other activities into focus, that we might see these different enterprises in light of our faith? Do we treat it as one of several groups that is important to us?
I lean toward the middle option, hoping that my participation in congregational life deepens me in the faith so that the Christian story provides a lens through which I look at and make sense of the rest of my life.
David, I lean with you toward the option of the church as a lens that brings our other activities into focus. This would strengthen the connection between "religion" and life out in the world. A lot of people seem to wish for the "first among equals" option, but that is just that--wishful thinking.

I think this role of providing context for the experiences of life is valid even for people who are engaged in the church. Without going to church I can experience deep, transformative sermons, contemplative prayer experiences, meditation, wise teaching, and find sacred music at my fingertips. A congregation that sees itself as a purveyor of religious goods and services is no longer a sole source. It would be a huge help to many people if congregations would create places where they can wrestle and learn and discuss in community -- and recognize that these spaces are as much "church" as formal worship.

A couple of readers offered their experiences and concerns in the comments:
As a preacher I have become increasingly dismayed at the apparent lack of change in those who hear the proclamation each week, including me. I pray for the movement that only the Holy Spirit can bring that will breathe new life into the dry bones that make up so much of our church.
and
How might our preaching, teaching, and conversations create faithful people who are transparent in their faith, open enough that anyone is willing to engage with, and who have an abiding relationship with God, their faith community, and their surrounding community (the up, in, and out of 3DM), that simply by living their lives, they provide the pictures, the glimpses, and relate the story of faith and God’s relationship of love and grace with the world in an easy, engaging way?
To the commenters I say: Seems to me the transformation you are talking about will happen best in interactive, safe and trusting conversations -- in 1-on-1's and intentional groups (like 3dm huddles), coffee conversations, committed small groups, etc. -- rather than in large group lecture mode. Worship might be a way to seed these ideas, but I think they will take root more deeply in environments where people can interact, share and struggle safely, question and doubt, and process how (if?) faith influences their lives. Now that would take some reorganization of time, people and priorities! Those situations seem to me to be as much worship as a regular Sunday liturgy.

The second commenter also wonders:
As our shift is taking place now and folks do not feel compelled or the need to enter into those doors to even look at the stained glass, what are we called to do?
I see this post as a humble way of asking ourselves and our contexts how we might become stained glass for the world. How might we strip down the lingo, language, jargon, insider speak, or need for someone to come into the walls and windows of the building?
I like the idea of being stained glass for the world. If people aren't inclined to come to us and give us authority, then our best option is to look like Jesus to the people around us, and to go out into that world to eat with them, heal them, celebrate with them, and stand up for them. That method seemed to work pretty well for the Lord, as I recall.

Eliminating the barriers of jargon, insider relationships, judgment of others and the requirement to enter our buildings will require some creative, discerning and fun re-invention. Not everyone is going to do this, of course. Despite the trends there are people for whom church-as-we-know-it "works," even if not enough to support the weight of our current building- and staff-heavy paradigm. To speak to the people David Lose is writing about -- those for whom the church is not the top allegiance or on whom it exerts little to no influence -- the church has to make safe spaces where people can experience God's mercy and justice, see God's people on mission to the world, express their doubts, hear the church confess its shortcomings, and find a way to give meaning to their stories by relating them to God's story.

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