Saturday, May 22, 2010

Futuring the Mainline Church

Today I'll be participating in the Regional Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Michigan.  This region is smaller than the one I came from and thus the Assembly will be a much smaller affair.  We will, however, be installing two people to serve as Co-Regional Ministers for a two year transitional period.  The Disciple footprint in Michigan is small and so regional ministries struggle.  Camps do fine, but beyond that we're scattered across the state.

One of the things we'll be looking at is regional restructure to deal with the realities, including the financial realities of the region.  What is interesting is that a few years ago there was a conference with an outside coach (a former General Minister of our denomination), and at this conference plans were laid out to guide the regional church.  We're being asked to revisit those efforts, which in my mind have been made obsolete by the events on the ground.  There are new leaders in the region (myself included), we're still not ready to call a Regional Minister, and we're not sure what to do.  My sense of things is that we essentially start fresh, recognizing the new realities.  We need to see ourselves as explorers and map-makers, and thus we have to write the maps as we go along (See Roxburgh, Missional Mapmaking).  Five year plans simply aren't workable.

My sense is that our situation is not unique, so I'd like to start a conversation about what the church should look like, especially as it exists beyond congregations. 


dcsloan said...

How many of us have seen or participated in placing a hand on the wall of the sanctuary and then saying, "This is not the church." We are trying to illustrate that it is the people of our faith community who are the church and not the building. Do we have any idea what we just said? If the building is not the church, why do we spend so much time and effort dealing with it? If the building is not the church, why is it so important to us? After we have said, "This is not the church," have we ever taken a far look in the direction we just pointed? What happens when we extend that thought?

What do capital campaigns and 6- or 7- or 8-digit mortgages (or any mortgage amount) and sanctuaries with high vaulted ceilings and proper acoustic resonance and stained glass windows and basketball courts and dining halls and sculpted altars and carved pulpits and custom-built communion tables and decorative carpet and imported floor tiles and plentiful paved parking lots and meticulously manicured gardens have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do fund raisers and all the accompanying effort and bother and time and finding and organizing the required workers have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do praise bands and church orchestras and multi-rank pipe organs and grand pianos and choirs or multiple choirs or choir auditions and choir robes and music folders and the search and review and selection analysis and purchase of new music and multi-line PA systems and multi-screen video systems and live broadcasts and recorded broadcasts and hours of rehearsal time and church bulletins and church bulletin art work and church bulletin paper and newsletters and mailing lists and advertising and advertising placement have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do membership drives and attendance numbers and baptism numbers and tithing and bequeaths and endowments and liturgical employees and non-liturgical employees and salaries and benefits and committees and committee meetings and church boards and church board meetings and the consequential and unavoidable church politics have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

Much of what we call successful Christianity and successful worship and successful congregations has nothing to do with living and sharing the Good News.

Once we begin to think of our faith in terms of largeness instead of largess or in terms of measurable success or significant achievements or community stature or statistically significant gains or business models or congregational models or appropriate budget processes or cash flow or generally accepted accounting practices or independent audits or administrative requirements or managerial transparency or proper leadership roles and boundaries or membership trends or effective organizational structures or a current and accurate vision statement – at that point, we have become the money changers – we have lost our faith and deserve to be driven away for we are neither living nor sharing the Good News.

dcsloan said...

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 education 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 of 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. "New" will not be statements of purpose/mission/vision or public stances on issues or styles of worship. It will be specific activities; specific ways of living that are the definition. Participating in Habitat for Humanity will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do, who we are. Supporting a free clinic will not be the focus of a single fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological DNA. Worship will not be every Sunday morning – it will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300) are gathered to live, study, or contemplate the Good News. Indeed, "doing" will be about living the Good News, not scheduling it as a repetitive activity on our calendar that always occurs at the same location. "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 face-to-face, one-to-one, person-to-person – not by an invisible faceless remote committee or collective. “Doing” our faith can only be accomplished with more personal involvement and not with better technology or more pervasive technology.

Congregations could and should divide into small groups and meet 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, the world, and God.

John said...

While the buildings are not the church, they are the centralizing focus for the congregation. The capital campaigns fund the building, etc, and in so doing the work on the campaigns draw the community together not only in effort but a shared financial commitment - where your pocketbook is where your heart is.
Those are purely functional responses.

But I think worship is not supposed to be one-to-one but within a community of believers.

I also think that music is prayer and an integral part of worship, and the money and effort spent on the music is effort spent on sanctifying worship. Angels who worship do not spend much time studying the word,they just sing.

You suggest returning to home churches. I can't say I disagree, but I would not agree that the ideal congregation, in place and size, is a home church. In the abstract I think they can be interesting, and even revolutionary, but they are short-lived, with limited programing capability, and most importantly, they lack oversight, accountability, and the ability to equip new witnesses and new leaders.

"Church as only worship, only studying, only witnessing in word and service to each other, the world, and God." That would not be church, nor would that correspond to the image portrayed in the New Testament. Even the apostles had collections, even the apostles participated in sacraments, even the apostles sang songs and fellowshipped with each other.

And when the crowds grew larger they were not split up and sent to home churches for serious worship. Instead they were cared for as a whole by the church.

I don't think re-imaging the church involves abandoning buildings, giving up song, or abandoning money or financial contributions to fund the ongoing work of the church.

For me, re-imaging the church involves, individually and as a community, accepting, preaching and living covenantally, with each other, with our neighbors, and with God. Living covenantally means to love God and our neighbors, and to live our lives witnessing to our love. It involves "Sabbath" as a way of life, it involves distributive justice as a way of life, and it involves prayer as a way of life.

I don't think one can live covenantally and yet live outside of a community of believers.


dcsloan said...

The word "accountability" is what caught my attention. Does having a larger congregation or a dedicated structure automatically provide "accountability?"

Is there such a thing as a congregation that is too big? How is appropriate size determined?

John said...

Yes, congregations can be too big.

Yes, accountability can be overmuch and regressive.

The answer seems to me to be BALANCE.


David Mc said...

I appreciate your thoughts dc, but I imagine that only the wealthiest among us would have the means to host worship in their home. I'm not unsuccessful, but we chose a modest home, and it's not super handicap accessible. There appears to be more than a few advantages in "shared ownership" I sure you could realize. As far as music, and rehearsal, my wife became a church member through her wish to join a choir. She loves her weekly rehearsals and her group, and her family loves to watch and sing along every Sunday. Are you patterning your ideas after anything? Perhaps a satanic grotto? Just kidding.

dcsloan said...

At what point are structure, organization, or socialization more important than worship and living the Good News?

How do recognize it?

How should we respond to it?

John said...

You ask:

At what point are structure, organization, or socialization more important than worship and living the Good News?

That happens when we lose sight of God, when we get our priorities all mixed up, when we begin to think this is all about us, rather than all about God.

I sense in your comments a great deal of frustration with issues of money, power and procedure.

I was talking with someone today about problems in her work environment and we talked about the critical importance of the concept of working as a team, where all members are committed to the final goal, and willing to surrender their narrow preferences, even when they are certain they are right, or that their option is superior to other options, and to do so because of their dedication to team success. If one fails we all fail, and if the team succeeds we all succeed.

I think the same idea works in the church - ministry is accomplished by a team including the pastor, elders, trustees, and including actual and perceived lay leaders, all sharing the same commitment to the community's success as a witness to god in the world. They must each be willing to work together, supporting one another, stepping in to hold up each other when we slip, accepting each other's shortcomings and where other members of the team willingly volunteer to fill those shortcomings with their own talents, all because each team member is committed to the Ministry of the community on behalf of God.

Priorities. and ... Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and be thankful in all circumstances.