This process of dreaming and imagining and applying some careful thought to the notion of churches that will best navigate life in the 20’s, this process has reminded me that it’s a lot easier to look back at what went wrong, and what is going wrong now, than it is to look for the new solutions and possibilities. I’m reminded of a synod-sponsored meeting in which all the participants were invited to fill out index cards stating issues impacting their churches. Two categories in particular were, “What Gives Life to Your Congregation?” and “What Takes Life Away?” The cards were then arranged on a wall according to their category. Guess which category had the most cards? Yep, the second one. So I guess it’s now time to take a stab at category number one and kick around a few visions of church that might leave a good footprint or two in the 21st century.
The expressions of church that will likely survive in this new century are the expressions of church that bring spiritual meaning, connection and purpose to people who no longer find meaning in simply signing up. Rituals will connect with people where they’re at–and yes, we’re including liturgical rituals in this imagination. Denominational-ism, while currently devalued, will retain a place in 21st century Christianity, but without much of the pride and exclusivity that have so poorly defined its character. As one of my colleagues, Pastor Tim, says, it’s likely though that the mainline Protestants will merge together under a big umbrella. And like the many sub-identities of the Roman Catholic Church–from the Jesuits to the Franciscans to the charismatics–the 21st century merged Protestant churches will maintain the familiar sub-identities we call Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Church of Christ, Episcopalian.
The churches that seem to “get it,” like the historic peace churches that got out in front to lead the rest of us on the Iraq War– these churches may do quite well indeed. This past decade, their people and leaders have modeled Christian integrity as they have called us all, time and time again, to the principles of non-violence, reconciliation and forgiveness that define the Good News in Christ. Meanwhile, too many of us have been mired in church cultures where Christan belief has long been welded to American Exceptionalism, so much so that too many of us adopted a “tiptoe through the minefield” strategy in order to survive. A lot of us Lutherans ducked behind the Augsburg Confession’s stated position that the affairs of state are best left to the state, and that we should spend more time tending to the spiritual realm. So we kept quiet, prayed for the troops, and officiated some funerals for the unfortunate young folks who came home in a box from that damned war. (It isn’t profanity when you call a thing what it is.) But, I digress…………
Churches that make plenty of room for doubt, for questions and for uncertainty, will serve people who are starving for such communities. These churches stand the best chance of becoming strong faith communities, since the primary opponent of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.
I believe the Church’s best gift to this emerging 21st century culture is found in the ancient heritage that rises above the limitations of creed and doctrine, yet it’s also a heritage that also paradoxically claims these things as the identity markers that hold different, even disagreeable people, together in community. Like many folks, I’m drawn to the legacy bequeathed to us by the earliest Christian churches that left their mark on the New Testament. These were different faith communities, radically different in some cases, and some communities brought radical differences together around a common table. The New Testament witness reveals there were problems–oh boy (Oy!), were there problems! Yet these folks continued to live together in these communities, and they ultimately gave the larger Greco-Roman culture some priceless gifts; first and foremost being the value of every person–slave, child, female, or free citizen–in the sight of a loving God.
Today we live in a culture where folks pursue their ambitions with strategies that often include de-humanizing and demonizing anyone they perceive to be in their way. This has been going on so long that the society hasn’t been rended, it’s been “chasmed.” That chasm seems un-bridgeable at the moment. If the Church could see and seize this opportunity, it could become the place where people who disagree could gather together and model the behavior that can heal us and make us whole. There is a balm in Gilead, and it’s the gift of life St. Paul lifted up to the Galatian churches as the life they could find in the Spirit:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (today we might add “divisions”). If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
This won’t be a perfect model; it never was. But it’s a model that can bring tangible healing and salvation to a world torn asunder by all those things Paul would ascribe to the life lived only in the acceptance of a physical reality. And this church can call us all to a higher standard of behavior toward those we find disagreeable. This church can remind all of us that the divine spark of God flickers in both friend and enemy.
There is another expression of church that will find good footing in these times. The church with an organic gospel, the good news that God is part and parcel with every aspect of the material world–our planet as well as the universe–this church can guide people down a healthy path that folks like Emerson and Whitman thought possible only through humanism. It’s true that the ancient gnosticism pitting noble, incorruptible spirit against the evil materialism of nature, this has gotten far too entrenched in Christianity. Most folks know that it’s just not right to knock down mountains, poison rivers and destroy habitat merely for the sake of extracting its resources for our own gain. Most folks know that such behavior is contributing to much of the death-dealing activity that threatens the earth and all its species. Organic gospel churches that stand against this ongoing devastation might do very well.
But we must know that we can no longer define “well” by membership numbers. Instead, “well” should refer to the integrity of the church and its faithfulness to its essential, historic message of a life to be lived in the love of God . That’s the historic message carried by a diversity of historic folks, including the Ignacii from both Antioch and Loyola; the Martins of Tours, Wittenberg and Birmingham; both Billys, Billy Graham and Billy, the long-haired Jesus Freak toting around a dog-eared copy of Good News for Modern Man.
I expect the Church as we’ve known it, will continue to decline during my lifetime. But resurrection cannot happen without death. Even now, the 21st century expressions of church are emerging. These expressions defy labels and categories through their newness and adaptability to the changing present. We shouldn’t be too surprised or feel too threatened, since it all goes back to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the profound changes these events brought into the life of the world.
Meanwhile, in all we do, as we live day after day in this uncertain, sometimes fearsome, new century, maybe the best advice on how to conduct our daily business comes from one of the ancient leaders of the second century Church, Irenaeus of Lyons. In turbulent and uncertain times, he wrote, “The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death.” As I read him, there’s not one snitch of fatalism to be found in that statement, only the paradox that we find in Christ, that to die is to live, and live abundantly. So we live, working to make the world a suitable inheritance for those who follow us. We live, knowing that All Things Must Pass (to borrow from George Harrison), and those things include our thoughts and dreams and everything else you and I grasp on to as a way to comfortably frame our sense of reality. We live, believing that Life and Love continue to grow and to blossom in the new realities that exist beyond our framework.
To wrap up, here’s a version of “All Things Must Pass” performed by the Friends of George at his memorial concert, held in the dawning years of this new century. Try watching the entire DVD of the Concert for George, especially the part where East meets West, and I think you might find some of the touchstones that are even now defining new expressions of spirituality and community in the 21st century.