Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently posted on reasons to leave or stay in the church. She struck a nerve, to judge from the level of response, and generated much discussion. I am a bit older than she is, and probably most of her respondents, and I have struggled with that issue for nearly 30 years. Actually, truth be told, I knew what I needed to do a long time ago. I stayed in the church because as a pastor it was my livelihood and I had no real career path outside it. Lacking the courage of my convictions, I chose security and stayed with the professional pastorate. Some things you can’t escape, however. After two and half decades I realized that I could no longer discover even a modicum of meaning and purpose in my daily round of pastoral work and in leading worship on Sunday mornings.
So at age 57 I left the professional ministry and took early retirement to write, speak, and work towards finding fresh ways to be and do church in our time. I knew from experience what much of literature was claiming. The traditional institutional church no longer works in reaching people and making disciples (actually, it’s never been very good at the latter). I have taken a couple of years to debrief and reflect on directions that seem fruitful to follow in search of a church for the 21st century.
Here’s some of what I’ve discovered. First, the problem is the structure of the traditional institutional church. I have nothing but admiration for most of the people and clergy I have met and worked with over the years. Their faith and faithfulness often dwarfed my own. The people are not the problem. However, the way the traditional church is structured and operates militates against the formation of the very values and vision needed for a church in our time.
This is where the theology of the missional church has been invaluable. Though the term has been hijacked and tacked on to any and every program of church since it became popular, the genuine article at its heart insists on a total rethink from the ground up of who and what the church is and is to be about in the world.
This resonated with me because I had been working at that rethink for a number of years. In the last couple of years one conviction spawned by another run through of the biblical material has become quite clear to me. As I looked at what God’s people are to be after the fall into sin and rebellion (the original revolution), it seems to me that in all the various forms the people experienced – escaped fugitives, nomadic wanderers in the wilderness, united and divided monarchy, an exiled minority, a people under foreign oppression, a new transnational, multicultural body without national identity and geographic boundaries – God called them to be what I have come to call his subversive counter-revolutionary people. That is, God’s people are to proclaim and embody the vision and values of people living peaceably with God and one another, together protecting and tending the creation to its full flourishing.
Church, thus, must be this people – a community that armed with God’s Word and practicing the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero) quietly subvert the visions and values of the fallen world effecting a divine counter-revolution against the revolution that cast the world into the throes of division, destruction, and death.
This seems to me non-negotiable. This is the mission God is working on and we are charged with being the vehicle he uses to prosecute this mission. Our heart, and shape and structure and processes must then be aligned with this mission.
As I’ve worked with this growing conviction through more than two decades of parish ministry, at least two things have become clear to me. First, we can’t get there from here. By that I mean I don’t believe it possible to move the traditional institutional church from what it is to this missional vision of church as God’s subversive counter-cultural movement. Or at least, the movement that might be achieved in this direction from with the institutional church is so minimal it does not justify the time, energy, creativity, and money needed to try and make it work. All those resources would be better spent, in my judgment, in working toward discovering new forms that better reflect and facilitate this vision and ministry of church.
My second conviction is that the problems with making this transition within the church as we know it revolve mainly around structure and location. Church as I see it in the Bible requires a much “thicker” relational network than our churches have today. I realized this as I would watch my congregation’s eyes glaze over when passages about the church were read from Paul’s epistles. My people simply couldn’t connect in any meaningful way with the relational “thickness” he seems to assume as constituting church. I suspect that’s why we argue so much about Paul’s “theology” and neglect his “ecclesiology.” We can deal better with ideas than we can a social reality we have not experienced!
Related to that, relational thickness requires location, location, location. People with whom we do not live and share live in a day to day sense are seldom if ever people with whom we become relationally “thick.” Christian faith is a way of life to be shared on the way of life with those around us. We need to root ourselves again in neighborhoods and focus on building small cells of folk who live and share life with each other and their neighbors, immerse themselves in that setting, and seek to live in view of people who have come to know them well the subversive counter-revolutionary ways of Jesus Christ. Certainly we must have a global concern and vision. But our life lines as the people of God are the work God is already up to in our locality through his Spirit and which we are invited by God to participate in with him. To put it simply, I do not believe the church will move through its present malaise until this matter of location, the soil of our relational thickness, is dealt with.
Much, much more should and could be said about all this. I am aware I’ve raised far more questions than answers. In fact, I’m presently writing a book on all this to try and sort more of it out for myself. Here, I simply want to add my story and reflections to the growing number of such that are being shared in our time. Thanks for listening.