Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wandering in the wilderness (Sunday Reflections for September 27, 2009)

I attended our annual synod pastors’ conference this week and, as most of these have been in the past, its focus was on revitalizing the church. Mainline Christianity reached its peak in size and influence sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, so its decline was well underway when I was ordained in 1983. That slide has only accelerated in the years since. Just about every formal gathering of clergy that I have attended has dealt with this issue one way or another. That’s a lot of handwringing.

The two speakers for this conference couldn’t have been more different. One was a semi-retired Methodist minister. His last full-time position was as pastor of the Chicago Temple, the famous Methodist church housed in an office building in the Loop and believed to be the oldest congregation in the city. The other speaker was a female ELCA pastor developing a new congregation in central Denver, following an Emerging church model. Its members tend to have a lot of tattoos and piercings—just as she does!

While Gene grew up in the church and has been a minister his whole adult life, he clearly recognizes how much has changed and how many ministry practices no longer work. The church is now in the wilderness, he says, like the Israelites who escaped from Egypt. We’re about half-way through the journey, he thinks, so the church has about another twenty years yet to go before it gets to the Promised Land.

What is important about this image is that it recognizes the wilderness to be a condition that needs to be lived with and adjusted to—not a problem that can be solved. Unfortunately, as Gene said, too many churches are wearing themselves out trying to come up with schemes to “solve” Christianity’s current state of decline. It can’t be done. For now, we just gotta live with it.

Of course, the key point of the Exodus story it that the Israelites didn’t go back to Egypt—and neither will the church go back to where it was. When Gene was asked what he thought the “Promised Land” would look like, there was a long silence. He didn’t know—no one does. Except we know it won’t look like where we’ve come from.

It’s often observed by commentators and preachers that the forty years of wandering in the wilderness was the time it took for the generation that remembered life in Egypt to die off. No more pining and whining for the leeks and cucumbers (Numbers 11:5). Life is going to be different now—get over it. And on into Palestine they marched.

But we haven’t gotten to the Promised Land yet. We’re still wandering around in the wilderness, still remembering how good life was in Egypt, still wondering how we might get back there. It was kind of amusing that as the conference went on it was obvious not many had really heard what Gene had said. Most of the questions and discussions were still about “fixing” the church’s problems, still wondering who had the map that could show us the way back to Egypt, back to the church of the past that we remembered and loved.

Nadia’s presentation certainly gave us a glimpse of a very different church. Was this what the Promised Land would look like? Starting with just nine people two years ago, “House for All Sinners and Saints” has grown to—well, about three dozen. She was remarkably honest about the trials and tribulations of her congregation. Would the church ever get big? Oh no, she admitted. Would it ever be financially self-supporting? Probably not. As earnest and enthusiastic as her band of urban, post-moderns is, they nonetheless have the frustrating characteristics of most young adults: they’re over-committed, not entirely reliable, and move a lot. Planning and execution is a real challenge.

We all seemed to realize that not a lot of her church experience could transfer to ours (nor did she encourage us to try). And the irony did not escape us that this new way of doing church was only possible because it was being underwritten by a bunch of traditional churches. So it left the problem solvers in the group kind of frustrated. While Nadia’s presentation was appealing, it didn’t leave us with much we could “try back home.” And besides, was this the outcome pastors were looking for: a congregation smaller, poorer and even more erratic than what they already had?

In its own way, then, Nadia’s story reinforced the point Gene had made earlier. Whatever Christianity is going to look like when we get out of the wilderness, it’s not going to be what we knew before. “House” is a ministry to the population most disconnected from the church. To reach them, this experiment indicates, means doing church very differently—and even then the results may be numerically pretty meager.

All of this reinforces my growing suspicion that it is the formula “Christianity = Church” which is really at issue here. Nadia is still trying to do church in some conventional ways. Their worship is very innovative yet it follows the church calendar and a liturgical format. Her church is looking for members who will join and support it with time and money. It’s appealing, but only to a few.

A study was released this week of the 15% of the population (double what it was less than twenty years) that claims no religious affiliation—the “Nones” as they are called. (This group makes up 22% of those under 30.) What is noteworthy about this group is that a majority of them still claims a belief in God or higher power. What they apparently don’t believe in is religious organizations. And those numbers would swell significantly if we include those who still claim a religious or denominational identity but haven’t darkened the door of a church in years.

Christianity without church? Can we even imagine such a thing? To church members it’s like talking about a square circle. Yet it is the reality more and more people know. People no longer need church as a social outlet. Traditional religious activities are replaced by personal prayer, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, 12-step groups, books, the arts, and TV and radio programs. Thousands of local, national and international nonprofit service organizations function with little or no religious involvement or affiliation, yet are often guided and inspired by religious teaching and tradition.

Will churches—and the Church—just disappear? I doubt that. Yet—rather obviously since it’s already happening—there are going to be a lot fewer of them. But instead of fighting this trend and exhausting ourselves (trying to “fix the problem” as Gene said), I am wondering if in some way we shouldn’t just be rolling with it. Perhaps we should be watching it, thinking about where it’s going, and wondering how we can be a part of it. One model—and an ancient one, at that—that some have said we should consider is Buddhism. It has almost no formal organizational structure and relatively few congregations, yet it has existed as long as the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Or perhaps what will evolve will be something completely different and unprecedented. To allay our anxiety, however, we need to seriously consider that, while what follows the wilderness won’t be Egypt, it could be just fine. It’s happened before, and when the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land they said, “It is God who has led us here.” It was his idea all along.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

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