January 31, 2013

We Used to Matter

I believe we have entered a shake-down season for mainline congregations like ours. As one wise pastor I know likes to say, “I’m a Presbyterian. We used to matter.” It is a way of saying that our best institutional days are now well behind us. In the past, we enjoyed prominent spots on the corners of our towns and among the communities that inhabited them. We still hold land on many corners, but much has changed. I believe our waning influence should prompt some honest examination, not with the goal of reclaiming lost ground but with the hope of liberation for greater faithfulness to God and greater integrity with the pattern of the gospel. Sometimes it is a gift to no longer be the coolest hangout.

As such, I believe the era of the low commitment, big tent, catch-all congregation is over. Communities of justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:8) cannot be sustained by keeping the expectations as low as feasible in order to attract and keep as many as possible. Numbers may expand for a time under this sensitive regime, but numbers usually contract again when the time comes for harder work, greater commitment, and renewed faithfulness to the call of Jesus. Going forward, congregations will want to come to peace with kingdom proportions: joy over 10 serious saints for every 100 curious onlookers. God loves onlookers. Indeed, God loves the whole world. God’s love for anyone or everyone is not the burning question. That matter was long ago settled. Jesus blessed the crowds, but he called a handful of disciples to follow him in the way of discipleship.

Speaking of discipleship, of forming students for Jesus, it will matter more and more in the future. I agree with Mike Breen, who notes, "If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples." We have in the past given much attention to the formal, public, large-group dynamics in our congregations: music, liturgy, preaching ... the furniture in our parlors, the length of our services. But it is now clearer than ever that these ecclesiastical externals do not themselves fashion new servants for God’s work. The crisis in our public worship space offers us the opportunity to pay attention to the “back of the house,” where Christian relationships are formed in less formal, smaller spaces. It is in these communal relationships that faithful thinking, praying, and serving are most likely brought to bloom. The governing question for the next 25 years will no longer be how we get people like us to come to our building on Sunday mornings and help us keep doing what we have always done, but rather, Will we risk making room in our common life for the fertile space in which new disciples bloom and flourish? Will I be threatened or blessed by my fellow Christian’s growth?

Given this, I believe we are called to no longer treat one other or our neighbors as consumers. Even in 2013, with everything we know about the allergies of the current generation to the spit and polish of marketing, we are still arguing in our churches about form instead of substance. Many of us church folk are still haunted by a consumerist compulsion: If we sing the right music, call the right preacher, offer the right programs, give away the right freebies, sing high or sing low ... the young people will come. Packaging the right product still works along the Boardman strip, or for those who troll Amazon.com, but spin and sales are not the tools of a living Christian community. I believe our Lord makes possible a genuinely human encounter, where persons are welcomed as human beings and are summoned to become students of Jesus and children of the Father, not to be treated as potential consumers of religious goods and services. We cannot treat our neighbors as prospective pew warmers and church bill payers, and then expect them to be anything more than the entitled, chronically disappointed, critical consumers that our culture tends to produce. In our common life, going forward, we have the opportunity to share in what seems less and less available in the wider society: the holy experience of not getting everything we want, when we want it, the way we want it. Instead, we get each other: mere Christians. And together we come to know a living God who promises to change our thirst for creature comforts into an appetite for faith, hope, and love. Besides, with regard to taste, I find that when a person is growing in the Lord they are grateful to be able to sing to God whatever music they can get their hands on. Among a collection of consumers, taste is tyrannical. In a communion of saints, substance matters more than form.

Let us agree, then, that gone are the days when music, messages, and a menagerie of programs would easily draw people into our common space. These days, people seem stuffed full of music, crammed with information, and overloaded with activities; stuffed, yet feeling depleted. If we want persons to dwell among us, now more than ever we have to be a church worth joining. Names, locations, styles, personalities: These carry precious little weight anymore. Our life together must be (can be!) marked by some quality of fellowship not otherwise available at Chipotle, on Facebook, or in the bleachers at Sunday afternoon soccer games. Not that these places are fake; rather, let our fellowship be at least as real. This will invariably mean relaxing on style and technique (always interested in controlling our experience) and being open to relationships and worship (always risking knowing and being known). I believe this manner of community cannot be hired out, or manufactured from up front, or mediated through technology, but is only known when the Holy Spirit is welcomed in times of joy and sorrow, when the way of Jesus is sought on Sundays as well as Thursdays, and when a generous Father is worshipped with substance more than form. A congregation moving along this spectrum will find itself less self-conscious about its worship. Inside its walls there will be plenty of air for others to breathe.

Undergirding this, I believe that the day of the passive church board has passed. There was a time when churches could call a pastor and, if they got lucky, she or he would rally the troops, speak well to all ages, and bring in the numbers (and money). But we live in an age that is worn out on singular personalities. I believe that healthy congregations know that they already have a Messiah, and are aware that they don’t need another. Our time in Christendom calls less for boards of management and acquiescence and more for councils of prayerful discernment. If your church is led by an executive and a board of directors, over time you get a non-profit religious corporation. If you are led by believers who are taught by the Word and open to the Lord’s leading, over time you get a community of disciples wanting to worship and engage. This is why I am usually more blessed to hear of a prayerful and conscientious “no” to ordained leadership than I am to know of a hasty and uncommitted “yes.” It is a sign of spiritual growth that it is taking longer to summon newer classes of officers. Knowing what we need from those who serve and lead us, we’ll likely need to get more comfortable with the pain of many “no’s” that help lead us to those who are called to the terrible burden and wonderful demotion of ordination.

I suspect, too, that the day of church staffs is likely passing for many congregations. We Presbyterians have often prided ourselves on good hires, and so there has been a tendency in our churches to see the goal of our shared ministry as the hiring of someone to do ministry. Make a good hire, and our collective work is done; sit back and watch the show unfold. The problem is this: We cannot hire our way out of our calling to raise our children to know and follow the Lord, to worship the triune God with gladness, to love our neighbor, to bless our enemies. If 75% or more of spiritual formation takes place in our homes on the other six days of the week, then church staff are, at best, a means of equipping the body to raise our children in a covenant embrace and to hold each other accountable to the call of discipleship. I predict in my lifetime the demise of full-time clergy and staff in many of the mainline congregations that survive the next 25 years. Much of this has to do with money. But more subtly, as the Christian pilgrimage no longer fits as cohesively into the mainstream American middle class experience, I believe our congregations are being called upon to embrace nothing less than a thoroughly amateur faith--a practiced communion, a growing discipleship. As long as a few of us keep up our giving and the money holds out, we can get some help with that learning from teachers and staff. But when it does run out for our kinds of churches, it just may be that we’ll be in a fresh position to experience the reality of the first-century church in Acts: amazed by every provision, empowered by the Spirit, and dependent upon the triune God in every respect. Although I will surely miss my pension, I look forward to that era and its kingdom fruit.

We used to matter a great deal. Perhaps in being relieved of that burden, we will find afresh that plain old calling of the gospel. As for me, I am learning to live by the closing paragraph of the Confession of 1967:
With an urgency born of this hope the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.
May it be so for all of us.