Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Questions We Ask About Church

Our church board is going on retreat for a few hours this Saturday.  When I say "board" I mean the Eliot Church Parish Committee, which is a much cooler name.  Lately we have been talking about our future.  We are--as congregations go--a healthy and dynamic group.  However, with that said, we have noticed what everyone else has noticed.  The world has changed and church...has not.  

Anyway, our retreat this year will be about what it means to be a congregation in this new world.  What does it mean for the institution?  What does this mean for our liberal faith? We don't really know.  What we do know is that the old things we have done aren't working well anymore.  We want to address these issues.  We want to have a conversation while we are still healthy that will prepare us for the future, whatever that may be.  the following is really a letter to them to get ready, but I thought I would share...

Dear Church Leaders,

We have a big weekend coming up and I am looking forward to it.  Our retreats in the past have inspired some of our most lasting ministries.  Things like the Garden, the Ukestra, Philosophers' Club, Pub Theology, Snow Posse, special services like Baseball Sunday, Blessing Sunday and so on. Family field trips,  Family Promise and cool Membership Committee events like the Jack O'Lantern competition have changed the way we do church. Music in the form of our expanded concert series has brought in people who would have never entered out doors otherwise.  Also, we began the building upgrade. We have a table at the Common.  You get the idea.  All of this has come from conversations at retreat.  Maybe not the exact ideas (which were worked out later), but the sentiment and the direction was begun and developed in that context.  Some things worked well and others didn't, but they are in a real and lasting sense the result of conversations refined at retreat.

One tool we are using for our conversation this time is a book by Rev. Dr. Jefferey Jones entitled "Facing Decline, Finding Hope: New Possibilities for Faithful Churches".  I will link to it at the end of this post.  It is a good read.  Jeff, himself will also be with us for our morning session.

His thesis is basically that not all churches will survive and that many of the ones that do will be transformed by the experience.  Phyllis Tickle, a respected expert on all things church, points out that religious institutions re-invent themselves every 500 years.  Jones accepts that idea and points out that we are due for another re-invention.  The world shifts over time.  Our culture, identities, and expectations shift, too.  Eventually the old institutions either adapt or make way for something new that works.  This is a time for adapting or for making way.  In a way it is a bummer.  In another way it is a blessing to be right where the action is.

However, what Jones points out (and I agree) is that we don't really have much consensus around what the "new thing" will be.  There are folks who are experimenting with a variety of models.  Some succeed and some fail but all give us information.  They all forge a path.  Most people and institutions, though, aren't doing this.  They are hoping to get by simply by tweaking here and there.  It is hard to adjust when you do not know what you are adjusting to, after all.  The problem is that tweaking doesn't cut it.  It is a decision for irrelevance.  The other problem is that tweaking is all we know how to do.

This doesn't mean that we need to run around like those metaphorical headless chickens!  In fact, we have some time.  The first step to entering into this new place is to ask some questions.  In fact, the questions themselves need to change from what we once asked, to what we now must ask in light of that massive societal shift that is happening around us.  Here are the questions that Jeff Jones asks in his book.  Again, I will link to it at the bottom if you would like to purchase a copy.  While the questions are Jeff's, the thoughts are mine...

Old Question: How do we bring them in?  New Question: How do we send them out?

You see the shift there right?  The first question is about maintaining that institution.  "How do we--short of kidnapping--get butts in the pews?  How do we make Sunday School more interesting than soccer or sleeping in?"  The second question is about how we empower our members and our community to interact with the world they live in.  There is a risk in asking this question over the old one.  But there are benefits as well if we take seriously the idea that the church is about sustaining people rather than sustaining itself.

Does the new question help answer the old one?  I think it does in this case.  People want to join a faith community that helps them to live authentic and fulfilling lives.  They will join congregations that are able to do this.

Let's try another shall we?

Old Question: What should the Pastor do?  New Question: What is our congregation's shared ministry?

There is that shift again!  The first is about staffing and assumes that the role of the staff (not just ministers) is to do the work of the church so everyone else can go about their business.  The second flips that.  The question is about how the church sees itself.  What does the community do to minister?

Is there a place for the staff in this new question?  Sure!  However we are on a loooong road trip and the driving needs to be at least shared.  Then the staff can take their turn at the wheel...and at the map...and leading the car games...singing the songs...picking the rest stop...changing the get the idea...

Old Question: What is our vision and how do we implement it?  New Question: What is God up to and how do we get on board?

This is one of those questions where perhaps as liberals we enjoy over-complicating.  We know that the word "God" means different things to different people but, really, it isn't so hard to grasp here is it?  The old question asks how we as a community want  to plan our future.  The new one asks where we are being led or taken.  The pre-socratic philosopher Heraclitus once said something to the effect that "you can never step in the same river twice".  The new question is simply "where is that river taking us"?  It is--no matter what theological language you prefer--a question of discernment.

Here is one that is common for many, many churches these days...

Old Question: How do we survive? (or in churches like Eliot that may be less desperate, "How do we restructure")  New Question: How do we serve?

I am not sure I even need to add much at this point.  There is the shift again.  We are hanging on to the old ways like a climber clinging to the cliff.  How do we let go?  How to we make the leap into the new?

OK, finally, one that has caused some confusion in these parts.  The fact is, our tradition has a particular way of talking that makes it hard sometimes to grasp points and concepts that are written or said in a way that comes from someone else's theological language.  Still, hopefully by this point--given the other examples--we can see the same shift here...

Old Question: What are we doing to save people?  New Question: What are we doing to make the reign of God present in this time and place?

At first in a liberal context the old question may not make much sense.  In our church there have generally been two responses to "saving" language.  There are those of us who do not believe people need saving and there are those of us who believe that "saving" people is something that the Great Whatever works out with individuals.  Both groups make a point of not "witnessing".  HOWEVER, guess what?  We do have strong opinions don't we?  We like to talk about them.  We like to bring folks around to our way of thinking.  Yes, we don't bring people to Jesus so they can get to heaven but we sure do stake out a position.

With that in mind, let's look at that second question in this final pair.  Again, we can let ourselves get hung up on the God language but we are better than that, people!  Our intern Shane points out that the idea of the "reign of God" is the same one that exists within one of our favorite hymns We'll Build a Land.  So the question is simply "Are we just talking or are we doing?"  "Are we trying to bring about the world we wish we lived in?" Or, perhaps more tellingly, "Are we just trying to change others or are we working to change ourselves?"

So there yah go.  The questions.  Maybe we need be asking both sets, maybe just one.  Either way, it is worth discussion.  One thing we do know is that the world is changing whether we like it or not...

I am looking forward to seeing you at retreat and then at our follow-up meetings.  thank you for being willing to take a look at these difficult questions.  You are great!

Yours in Faith and Hope,

Here (drum roll please) is a link to Jeff's book.

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