[Very occasionally, I move a comment from a reader to the main posts, to make certain the readers who only subscribe to the posts read it. This comment by Charles McLean takes the discussion in an excellent direction.]
[The last post] is an enlightening and challenging post. It is the worst of worlds: a profoundly disturbing idea which rings true at a deep level. It suggests to me that we must move well beyond any change of methodology to reach the majority of lost people in our communities. As gut-wrenching as it has been for some congregations to embrace something as internal as a new song list, this problem suggests change on a different order of magnitude. What’s the problem with “change agents”? They aren’t moving fast enough or far enough.
I will actually suggest that the problem is not that we are so unwilling to modify current church practices that are an established part of our culture, that we sacrifice mission to tradition. No, it’s worse than that. It may well be that traditional church culture is inherently incapable of the mission we have before us. Our model can continually be tweaked for better functionality, but the numbers suggested in this post are beyond “tweaks”.
The 18th century model which we have continued to remodel and repaint for the last couple hundred years depended on certain aspects of 18th century culture. Cultural homogeneity was one aspect. When everyone in our culture had nominally the same general cosmic view, we only needed to inculcate the operative details into the members of our community. Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney were not surrounded by Muslims and atheists. They did not much penetrate the culture of African slaves. They functioned in a predominantly white/Christian/Protestant culture and did not stray too far from it. Even when the church sent out missionaries, it generally planted a white/Christian/Protestant version of the church. It was what we knew. We are like a tribe who has lived for generations in boats on the water – only to find out one day that the lake is drying up and that much of our former range is no longer accessible to watercraft. Newer, shallower-draft boats improve things a bit, for a time. But at some point, our grandchildren will have to learn to live on land … or become further and further isolated on the shrinking lake.
While I share Jay’s general concern about producing and feeding religious consumerism, I think this is a problem more inherent to the believers than to the unbelievers out there. Unbelievers are not even in that market. An entire generation is arising who was never fed religion at home and never developed any taste for it, nor desire for it. It is something that belongs to Grandma, like lye soap. It is becoming more and more a cultural artifact in large segments of modern society.
If we insist on maintaining the traditional church at all costs, and cannot bring ourselves to think or talk beyond that paradigm, then we are headed for the anthropology museum. There is something beyond our model. Hey, our model looks little one we see in first century Asia Minor! So, why is our own form immutable?
I am not advocating tearing down all the buildings. No, what I am saying is that we are going to have to begin to think much much differently about what the church is going to look like. Far more radically than even we troublemakers have done so far. Much of what currently passes for change in the church is just remodeling. House churches miniaturize their larger progenitors. That little kaffeeklatch of ten believers at St. Arbucks looks and sounds just like a Sunday school class. We continue to tack on features to our institutions that did not grow there naturally. (“We built this nice fellowship hall and it has a nice kitchen, so we should open a soup kitchen.”) As Jay observes, we can’t get volunteers to staff perfectly-good programs.
I don’t have the answer here, but I think I know what the first step is. We have to open our minds and hearts to the idea of a church which is foreign to our experience. To hear radical ideas and to actually consider their import, instead of rejecting them because such ideas simply “won’t work in our church”. To accept that after all our insistence that we know the will of God, that He may just be doing something we have never seen before. Our dialog must range much further than it has so far. We must become unafraid of even wild-eyed ideas. We can hear the Lord regarding such things; we need not be afraid. Some bad ideas have in them grains of truth that we won’t discover until we actually chew on them for a while.
We also will have to accept that much of our tradition is unlikely to survive the transition. (And by “our tradition”, I mean “the way I have always walked as a believer”.) As God reveals to us how to really reach into the world around us, a lot of perfectly good “stuff” is going to go begging. If we cannot fathom the useful death of our own church, that it might die and go into the ground so the gospel might spring forth from it, it’s going to be very difficult to move far into that 60%. If we cannot consider the possibility that the clergy profession may itself have to disappear in order to scatter the message, we may find ourselves holding on to something that is less than our calling. If reject out of hand the idea that the leadership of the church may arise among people thirty and forty years our junior — well, we are going to get stretched.
We must be able to seriously consider the possibility that our 18th century church model, with all its accomplishments, may have become like a pair of tonsils– once useful, even needful, but now as much an obstacle to our health as they once were a benefit to it. Jay suggests that we will need many models. In fact, I would suggest that the very idea of an optimal human model– where we see success and try to copy it — has long been a candidate for the dustbin.
One more analogy. Ancient sailors once would not stray from the sight of land. The unknown was out there beyond the horizon. But the people who opened up the world to us are the ones who made the terrifying choice to go out and discover just what was out there.
Jay, thanks so much for this post. Here’s to a MUCH bigger dialog.