Thursday, January 27, 2011

Return of the Staybattical Part IV: The Once and Future Church

It is a snow day...again.  I just finished shovelling out the driveway and feeding my charges (that is, my children).  Now to get to all the various tasks that inhabit the day. 

Some of those tasks will have to do with Staybattical and, in particular, the research I am doing around the future of the church universal.  It is on my mind these days as the Eliot Church works to restructure its governance, mostly while I am gone.  They have some great ideas and they have gotten me thinking.  This is a topic that dominates the writing lives of many fellow-bloggers so I write on it quite a bit less frequently.  Still, it is something I am working on.  The future of the universal church, after all, influences the future of the particular church I serve.

What I see is what many people have noted over the years.  Society is changing and the church is having a hard time changing with it.  Some folks feel the solution is theological, others political.  While there are certainly issues in these areas that need to be addressed, I tend to think of big problem as structural.  The fact is, the church as an institution has become stiff and brittle.  It cannot adapt to current situations as well as it used to.  That sense of "we have always done it this way" is killing us. 

It isn't theology alone that needs to adapt today. The way that we go about our business also needs changing.  For example, we have church services at a time that is inconvenient for most people.  Even the Saturday night times popular in some circles don't work for most folks.  Our busy weeks make it hard to wake up for anything on Sunday other than the sacred duties of youth sports.  I have serious issues with the Burbanian sports culture--just scroll down to my previous post.  However, I also believe that we cannot speak to those folks who are not present.  The same goes for Saturday night.  People are tired and want some unstructured time.  For many people (thanks to work, other activities and, yes, youth sports) this is the only time in their week when they don't have to go anywhere.  Is it really pastoral to fill that block in, too?

In the future, if the church is to survive, it will need to find ways to go to where the people are.  It will need to get back to its roots and work harder to fit into the communities it serves.  Buildings and clergy may need to be put aside for some communities.  For others they may be necessary but different in form and job description.

Ministers, I think, may ultimately be the a greater stumbling block than property.  I have been thinking lately of the old "circuit-rider" model that was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.  We could do this today.  In this model,  clergy would have a series of communities that they would travel between throughout the week. 

Now, of course, many ministers--myself included--have served "yoked" parishes.  However, the job (after the careful counting of hours-per-congregation) has been pretty much the same as the one I have now with a single parish.  What I envision is something different.  I once suggested, for example, that one might serve a series of "house churches" as preacher and consultant and journey between them.  Distance will be less of a problem than it was.  Now we have cars, after all, so it cannot be as hard as riding a horse.  We also have phones and email.  There are fewer bandits. The problem, I think, would be congregational expectation.  The job would be different.  There would be less time.  Ordained-and-trained clergy would be more like "bishops" addressing specific areas of church life and providing quality worship.  Other things would fall to the members.  Here we come against congregational expectations.  A church--whether the minister serves for ten hours a week or sixty--often expects the exact same service from that minister.  This is true even though these expectations may interfere with what could be a rich internal ministry of lay people reaching pastorally toward each each other.

 Well, that is all for now.  When I have written about these subjects in the past, I have gotten some interesting responses and hope that I do again.  For example, many ministers of churches that rent have assured me that it is not a walk in the park, either.  Still, it is good to float ideas and see what, if anything makes sense for the institutional church.  We are at a crossroads--in Burbania at least--and a new direction will be chosen for us if we do not choose one for ourselves.


  1. Seems to me there are a growing number of us interested in ideas like regional ministries, yoked parishes, a new incarnation of circuit-riding, etc. Do you know of anyplace online where there's an intentional conversation around these issues?

  2. Hey,

    My first blog was about these sorts of issues, but it is deceased. Also, topics such as this come up from time to time at "Boy in the Bands" (Scott Wells).

    Scott is interested in church planting. Also Ron Robinson is doing some of the most creative work around these sorts of things a "Missional Progressives" and "The Welcome Table".

    What the topic needs, however, is more of a forum and I don't know of anything out there yet (sigh).

    If there was one, though, I would love to know about it!