The final entry of my sabbatical adventure away from the Church entitled: "Church No More."
Almost three months ago I (an ordained minster who has gone to church my whole life) walked away from church– for three months. It is what I've decided to do with my sabbatical. You can read about my initial thoughts on my blog or on The Huffington Post. As the journey unfolds, I will be blogging about it in this series entitled, “Church No More.” I hope you will not only follow along, but add your voice to the reflection by commenting or joining the discussion on my FB page.
They say you can never go home again. The thinking being, having left and experienced new things, you have changed and the people back home have continued in their lives just as you left them. Your experience of going back home again will necessarily be very different from your experience of home as you remember it, even though it may have changed very little.
In many ways, Church is one of my homes and I left it. I walked away for three months and experienced a bit of life outside of it. The three months are up and I'm going back home. This Sunday (September 2) is my first Sunday back.
The saying “you can't go home again,” probably originated from Thomas Wolfe's novel, “You Can't Go Home Again
.” It's the story of an author who leaves his home, writes about it from a distance and then tries to go home again. It doesn't exactly go well. The folks in the town are none-too-happy about him airing their dirty laundry so publicly. So, you can't go home again.
Well, I'm going to try. Yes, I left the Church and wrote about it from a distance and judging from some of the comments and emails I received, some folks are none-too-happy about some of the things I said, but it's time to go back to the Church.
The good news for me is I'm primarily going back to church (little “c,” as in the church where I serve) and then secondarily to Church (big “C,” the institution). I love the folks at Vandalia Presbyterian Church. We're a small church with a big heart. I'm looking forward to seeing them all again and to doing ministry with them again. Here's the thing: I've changed. That worries me a bit.
Children Grow Where I Send Thee
A church is a surprisingly difficult thing to just pick up and move. I'm not just talking about the physical building. If you've ever tried to get a entire group of people to move (be it spiritually, ideologically, or theologically), you wold probably agree that, at times, it might just be easier to move the physical church - but we can't.
Churches must grow where they are planted. Digging them up with all of the roots that have been established and moving them to a new location is amazingly difficult and in the rare cases that attempt it, frequently they are not ever able to fully take root, so they eventually wither away. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare.
Growing a church organically, takes very seriously the idea that God has planted a church where it is. It takes very seriously the idea that God has carefully placed the church where it can not only be watered but can provide sustenance.
Considering the realities about the Church that were mentioned in the first three parts of this series, that would seem to be a little bit of a problem. As society has changed the Church hasn't. We have decentralized ourselves from the lives of a great deal of our communities. Ultimately, we have turned inward for stability and comfort. The more we cling to our past and ourselves, the more the communities in which we are planted have found us to be irrelevant for their lives.
In that situation, the Church is neither likely to be watered by or provide spiritual sustenance for the community. We have to begin reengaging our communities and the first step, quite naturally is to stop clinging to our past and ourselves and, instead, engage in our present and our communities.
Can The Walls Come a Tumbling Down?
As we've seen, the society and community in which most churches sit have moved forward with the inevitable changes of life and for decades as they have changed The Church has done everything in it's power to remain firmly in its place. The net result is that the Church has not only removed itself from its former place of centrality in most communities, but it has become decidedly 'other' - an alien in it's own community. This isn't the kind of 'other' to which Paul called the church either. That kind of 'other' while not of the community was very decidedly in the community.
The Church has responded in a number of very understandable yet unhealthy ways. One of them is to turn inward. When the community in which you reside looks so very different from the community within your walls, it is very comforting to turn inward. It not only reassures you that it is 'OK' to be like you are, but it also offers a great deal of support in a situation where you feel like the 'outside' world has gone astray and are infringing upon what was once your community.
Naturally, this inward turning that many churches who have been left behind by society experience, will ultimately lead to a decrease in missions, particularly in missions in the immediate community. This withdrawal from engaging in social and justice issues in the immediate community is reinforced by ever-decreasing funds.
The decrease in funding and available resources is also related to the inward turning. When church members are holding on tightly to each other in order to survive the perceived storm outside the walls of the church, it makes reaching out to new members difficult. Over time this means a decrease in membership.
Congregation members are also effected by another, more subtle, influence when it comes to bringing in new members. Identity. It has long been an unspoken problem in churches but in becoming so inward turned, it has become more pronounced. When a church disengages from the community in which it sits, it becomes a community unto itself. One contained within a predefined area by the walls of the building, but a community none-the-less. Within that community, people naturally take on roles. Sally keeps the kitchen clean; Bill tells us what to to about finances; Sue writes get-well cards, etc.
Over time, those roles become part of each individual's identity. In many ways, they perceive it as part of who they are. “I'm the one who is responsible for having the kitchen in good order.” That's when the roles begin to hurt the Church. There are two specific ways which most concern me. The first is with other members of the church. When the kitchen is left dirty, Sally will take it as an attack on her personally (at the very least on a sub-conscious level). When you add up all of the assumed identities within the church community, it is inevitable that there will be factions...and they will compete for control.
Worse yet, when Jane infringes on Sue's identity as “the-one-who-writes-get-well-cards” there will be some kind of conflict and with conflict there are two likely outcomes: flight or fight. Either one has the long term effect of diminishing the church's size and ultimately opportunity to do ministry.
The second way the conflation of roles and identity concerns me is that it leads churches to be polite, but not hospitable. While new people coming in the door do represent an opportunity to do ministry and new life, they also represent a possible threat to well established ways, a long term threat to the factions that have power and ultimately a threat to individual’s identities as the new people may also have ideas about the kitchen, finances or they may just like to write get-well cards.
So, we welcome the new people but we do so reservedly and if they are to venture into territory where they have not be given permission by the Powers That Be, they will find that the welcome did not run as deep as they had first hoped and will probably make the choice to move on. (Frequently, they chose to not continue to play this kind of game with the Church and on Sunday mornings can be found enjoying sleeping in, an extra cup of coffee, or a 10 o'clock tee time).
More churches than really care to admit it find themselves in this position. The way back to a relevant ministry is difficult, challenging, and requires a little bit of death, a little bit of re-birthing and a whole lot of faith and hope. The Good News is, life after death, and faith and hope have always been the stuff of God. That's what we will be looking at in the last of this four part series on Organic Church.Part 1: Hopey-ChangeyPart 2: Sit Boy, Sit. Good Dogma.Part 4: Children Grow Where I Send Thee
Sit Boy, Sit. Good Dogma.
In order to understand why we need to grow our churches organicly (whatever that may mean - don't worry, we will get to that), we need to understand a little about how we, The Church, arrived at our current location as well as what the location is.
There was a time, frequently referred to as “the good ol' days,” when the church was the center of society (as in the first quadrant of the illustration below). A large percentage of a community's life centered around the church. It was not only the moral compass and center for their lives, but it was their social and philanthropic center of their lives as well.
This afforded the church the ability to define for it's community what was acceptable and what was not. It was really unlikely that people would challenge the status quo that was being established (one, not surprisingly, heavily weighted down with dogma). Challenging the thing that defined your community and was the center piece of many people's daily lives and activities would have probably been a really good way to make sure you were not accepted by those who had power in the establishment and ultimately you would probably be pushed out to the margins of the circle of society, if included in it at all. So, the status quo that's being established goes unchallenged and ever-unchanging.
As you could probably guess, this kind of influence (and let's just be honest, power) was somewhat intoxicating. The Church, particularly it's leaders, began to believe the myth that they had established. The myth wasn't that they were at the center of community, because in many ways they really were. The myth that they had begun to believe was that they deserved to be there, that it was by some divine right that they have so much influence (and power).
That was the beginning of getting left behind. In the illustration below, the first quadrant represents where the church once was – in the center of society. The blue arrow represents time and change. Over time, society began changing. The church, in it's perceived place of godly instituted influence and power, did not change even though it has a history of changing and, at times, doing so dynamically. The further society moved down the time line, the more it changed and the more church did not. With each passing year The Church became less and less relevant for a quickly change society.
The bottom half of the illustration is where we arrived. Society has moved on and, much to the surprise of The Church, has done just fine without us. People, it turns out, were created in the image of a very responsive and ever dynamic God and were able to find other social centers, other ways to express their philanthropic needs and other ways to fulfill their spiritual desires. The Church didn't fare as well. We continue to insist that we can repeat the things we used to do (maybe with a few minor adjustments, but certainly not with any changes that are significant or truly challenging) and expect to reap different results. Not surprisingly, it doesn't work and The Church not only continues to die, but more importantly it continues to be less and less relevant for more and more people which takes away the opportunity of doing ministry with them.
We have a problem. Growing our churches organicly is at least one good solution. But before we go there, we need to understand how our current condition has effected our relationship with our community. We will look at that in the third installment in this four part-er on Growing Church Organicly.
Part 1: Hopey-ChangeyPart 3: Can The Walls Come a Tumbling Down?
Churches are dying at an alarming rate. Research by The Barna Group
suggests that 3500 to 4000 churches close every year. More than 2,765,000 people leave the church each year. And yet we, the Church, insist on doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting different results. When confronted with change we insist that “it has always been done that way,” as if history is an acceptable excuse for continuing down our path to demise.
In thinking about this, it is helpful to turn to Dr. Paul Batalden. In looking at the dis-function of our health-care system Dr. Batalden, a Dartmoth Medical School Professor, is fond of saying, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the the results it gets.” If your church is dying, it is perfectly designed to die. You can keep repeating the past over and over again and consistently get the results of dying. That's exactly what most churches are doing.
For years and years churches have joined in with movement after movement, each designed to help the church change. Most of them don't work – at least not in terms of change. They do tend to be very good at distracting from real, substantive change. They are very successful at taking away our guilt for having a church that can't attract new members, because we think "at least we are doing something."
The problem with why these programs fail more times than they work is also part of the problem with many churches themselves: our ability to accept cognitive dissonance. Talking the talk, but not walking the walk... and not really being bothered by it, more or less acknowledging it. The world outside the church, in large part, see us as hypocritical. And we've given them every reason to do so. Churches profess love of neighbor yet either explicitly condemn people of certain lifestyles or implicitly condemn them by our silence when others claiming to be Christians do. We profess that we are all made equal and that we are equal in the eyes of God yet we are astoundingly silent on issues of social justice. The list could go on and on, and I'm not saying that some churches aren't authentically living into these things (because some are). What I am saying is that the world outside the church just doesn't see it much. What they do see leads them to deem us all hypocritical.
That kind of existence allows us to work our way through programs on emerging\ transforming\re-imagining church without ever really doing much more than the head work. We have learned the skill of cognitive dissonance well. It keep us from having to do things that make us uncomfortable like spending time in low income housing areas, talking to the homeless, ministering with those in jail...you know all the things Jesus said we were doing to him when we do them. Cognitive dissonance means we get to be 'Christian' without actually being very Christ-like.
Naturally our churches get to do the same. We can read all about the “hopey, changey” stuff, talk about it it in positive tones, and ultimately back away from it when it leads us to do something as drastic as playing a guitar instead of an organ during worship... or worse yet, playing a guitar instead of an organ during worship and feeling like we have really stretched ourselves.
While we “study” the programs on changing, we get to feel like we are doing something. The problem is the companies who market them have to be able to... well, market them, so the programs always have some kind of a release valve built in that allows those who don't really want to commit to change to be able to do a little something different, feel better about having done something, without actually really addressing any of the systemic problems. It leaves the core system in tack and it continues to perfectly get the results it gets...but we feel better because, “Well, at least we tried.”
In the next three parts of this four part series, we will look at how we got here, the Church's response to dying, and what we might do about it. In book after book, authors have tried to take on this topic so the work I'll do here is admittedly cursory, but maybe it will be a place for you and/or your church to begin engaging in the conversation. If so keep one thing in mind, don't do it if you aren't willing to enter into it with a willingness to be committed to the vision and the change. This is more than a good idea; it is more than a possible way to keep your church from dying; it is an act of faith.Part 2: Sit Boy, Sit. Good Dogma.