I am officially going on sabbatical tomorrow which means I have a great deal to do today. I suspect, however, that there will be leftovers. The sabbatical is non-contiguous. I will be taking some of it now, then more of it in January and February. Finally, I will be gone in May. This has to do with a variety of things that I have mentioned earlier. Simply put, I will be spending a great deal of my time outdoors this year and wanted to experience New England in all four seasons.
However, there are other aspects to this time that I have not discussed as of yet and one of them has to do with thinking about the future of the church. Yes, partly this has to do with observations I have made in congregations I have served, but more than that, I wonder where liberal Christianity is going. Does it have a future? If it does, what will it look like? I would love reading recommendations, by the way.
To start off my thinking, I have given some thought to what I would like to think of as a "vacuum-church" new start. That is, what would it look like if a congregation was formed today, without the many layers of tradition. cultural foibles, and local theology that have formed so many of the ancient religious communities we serve? Readers from my church shouldn't worry. This is not an action plan but an exercise in imagination...
I haven't fleshed it out entirely, but here are a few things that I have thought of so far.
1) The Congregation Would Rent
I have served three congregations as minister and two as a student, each of these had at least one beautiful building to its name. Worship is always lovely in the sanctuary, of course, and on Christmas Eve and Easter when even the balcony is full, the experience is breathtaking. However, buildings are expensive and divert resources from other interests and projects, including our individual and group journeys of faith. The big old building, constructed with optimistic ideas about Sunday attendance can also make one feel a bit lonely when there isn't a major holiday coming up.
Rental would not be perfect either. I know this, but it also provides flexibility. It allows a congregation to adapt in both size and location. It allows it to grow in ways that don't have to do with bricks and mortar, which, particularly for mobile younger (and mobile older) people, would be a big plus.
2) It Would Have Many Smaller Worship Services Sunday just isn't cutting the mustard for many modern families. There is too much going on. The church has lost (and lost spectacularly) the battle against youth sports. We are losing the battle against coffee, NPR and the NYT as well. I think there needs to be a change in how we think of worship. In the future it will need to be smaller and more personal. I am not necessarily talking about "small group ministry" (though I do think this is part of what needs to happen). Small groups require scheduling and commitment that is also difficult for some folks to attain. Others just plain enjoy "traditional" worship.
I believe that there needs to be "normal church" for smaller groups of people multiple times during the week. If you have a congregation of 100 people and are only getting 25 to worship on a Sunday in that big, beautiful sanctuary, perhaps a better plan would be three services--one at the usual time--where you get 20-30 adults each time (and in an appropriately sized space) as it fits better in their schedule. Sure, some would be duplicate attenders, but more members of the congregation would get their moment of worship if church were, say, Tuesday evening, Friday at lunch, and Sunday at 10am. We just need to get over the idea that we will see everyone at one time during the week.
3) Worship Styles Would Vary in Organic Ways I realize that this is happening in some places, but in others there seems to be a temptation to label. What is "traditional"? What is "contemporary"? What is a "revival"? I truly think this has more to do with who shows up than with what comes from a book. On this blog you can read about our summer services and my magical uke. It worked for us, but am not sure that it fits into any specific category other than "different".
4) It Would Have a Large Commitment to Service I firmly believe that people of faith (even those who cannot get themselves to church) want to live out that faith in the world. There are few things that make that possible. Church, however, can. Those multiple worship services would either precede or follow opportunities for service. There would be other times as well. And each time (before and after) the congregation (or part of it) would come together for this purpose, someone would pray. Someone would give thanks for the opportunity to be of service, to learn something new, and to grow in faith.
This is as far as I have gotten. I want to emphasize that this is not my church, but the kind of church that I see doing well in the future. In an earlier post I wrote about how congregations are naturally smaller, more community (and less status) oriented, and likely to continue to be further marginalized in a culture that does not respect liberal religion (just think of all those Garrison Keillor jokes about UU's). The sooner we understand that. The sooner we can adapt. The liberal church is pressured both by religious conservatives and the secular culture that attempts to absorb it. These are just ideas, and may be completely wrong, but the situation in society demands that we give them some thought.
Of course, these are not new ideas at all...
Here (by way of example) is a blog from my friend and colleague Ron Robinson in Turley OK. I am looking for resources, so please feel free to drop me a line if you have one.
Here is a link to my "worship" section that includes the ukelele stuff and the previous post on the liberal church.