Thursday, September 29, 2011

How do we move the church past division in theology, evangelism and mission to work toward unity in Christ?

We believe that we are united with believers in every time and every place. We believe that we are one body, with Christ as our head. The unity of the church is a key element of our ecclesiology. There is room in our theology and practice for faithful disagreement, yet there are increasingly more individuals and groups within our church that speak of schism and division. Schism rends the witness to Christ that we bear to the world. I also believe that we are a 1 Corinthians 12 church, not just better together than we are apart, but incomplete without each member.

We have to change our focus from the issues that divide us and instead seek unity through Christ in the calling to which we have all been called - sharing the love of God to all the world, in word and in deed, and in our visible witness as a church. "We" cannot move the church past divisions in theology, evangelism, and mission - only God can. I suggest we pray to God for the peace, unity, and purity of the church even as we work to maintain that bond of peace in all that we do.

What unique voice do we, as Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, bring regarding vital ministry in churches and in society?

We have much to offer the church in the 21st century. We value unity among Christians with Christ as the head of the church, understanding that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ, even though we may organize ourselves different and faithfully disagree on matters of understanding and belief. We have a commitment to ecumenical work. We have stated values of celebrating our unity in the context of diversity of all kinds - theological, racial, ethnic, age, sex, disability, and so on, and stated desires to be a church that is reflective of the diversity that God created. We believe in mutual forbearance, that God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that we can find greater unity in spite of our differences in loving and joyful submission to Christ as the true head of the Church.

Our Presbyterian system of government is marked by shared leadership. We understand that each of us is called by God to live out our calling in this world - we each have a vocation. Those who are called to the specific functions of ministry of Word and Sacrament as teaching elders, those who are called as ruling elders or deacons, are no more called than others to ministry in the world, to fulfilling the calling to which we all have been called, to build up the body of Christ. The commitment to shared leadership is very important in the 21st century church (see my answer on question #1).

Theologically, we believe we are all in need of God's mercy and grace, all broken people in need of healing and reconciliation. As we move into new ways of being, we also must be able to confront what we have been and repent ways in which we have participated and continue to participate in the world that deny the peace, unity, and justice that prevail in God's reign. We need to exercise greater humility and repentance for what we have done and what we have left undone, and we can do so empowered by the knowledge of God's grace and forgiveness that is extended to us through Jesus Christ.

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda  - This classic statement of the Reformed church is often translated as "The Reformed church, always reforming," but it should be translated as "the Reformed church, always being reformed." We believe that God is still at work in the world today, still at work in the church, and that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to live into new ways of being church. We are always being reformed  by the Holy Spirit. If we truly believe that and can live into that belief, if we can trust the guidance of God to unmask the idolatries that are keeping us from following God's call for our church and our lives, then we will get closer to being the body of Christ in ministry to our changing world and all of the changing contexts because we will be actively discerning how God is calling us to join in God's activity - already at work in the world - to be the church that is needed here and now.

What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century?

I think the single biggest challenge will be for the church to let go: to let go of who we used to be, who we think we should be; to let go of "traditional" measures of success such as members and giving. We need to let go of the thought that the church is "our" church. We need to let go of our fear of change. We need to let go of the fear of failure, the fear of dying (as a church), and the fear that we will soon have to close our doors forever. We need to let go of our desire for control, and recognize that the church is in God's control (and thank God for that!). We need to let go of our desire for power, social standing and privilege. We will need to let go of some churches that should be closed, some buildings that should be sold, and ideas about doing things the way we have always done them before. We need to let go of the idea that ministry is in the hands of those of us who are paid and trained professionals. We need to learn to let go.

We must prioritize worship, faith formation, community development, mission, and outreach. We need to focus on the ancient (timeless) practices of prayer, reading Scripture, corporate worship, and hospitality and discernment, but in ways that blur distinction of insider/outsider into seekers together. We must prioritize sharing the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ with a world that is so desperately in need of God's grace, healing, and reconciliation. We must reclaim and live into the joy of living as redeemed people, transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and let our life speak to our faith, let our faith show in the fruit that we bear. We must re-engage with the world and with the culture in ways that promote healing, justice, peace, and reconciliation; that speak prophetic truth to power; that repent of our participation in sinful systems; that speak God's eternal and timeless words of truth to new generations in language that is authentic and meaningful to ever-changing contexts. That is quite a list of "highest priorities," though it could be longer! To sum it up in one word, in one priority, I would say "discernment" - we must discern how God is calling us to be church here and now - and then do it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?

One simple "answer" to this question is: when the good news of the gospel in Jesus Christ is shared in word and in deed, in ways that speak authentically into the cares and concerns of our lives today; when faith communities gather around the table of the Lord, sharing joys and bearing each other's burdens; when we take seriously the task of spiritual discernment in our communities and in our lives; when we follow God's leading out from the church and into the world in mission; then, I believe, a great diversity of people will be gathered by God into one body of Christ.

In other words, there is nothing we need to "do" to attract the great diversity of our country to Jesus Christ. The person and message of Christ alone speaks to people from every race, ethnicity, gender, etc... In many ways, it is our job not to get in the way of that.

That being said, we must identify the ways in which we do get in the way of being the inclusive and diverse community of God that we are called to be. Here are a few thoughts.
1 - We wear blinders. 
Some blinders we willingly put on ourselves, when we decide to whom we will reach out, who we will welcome into our communities in genuine ways, and what our concerns are as a church. Necessarily, every sermon, every class, every discussion, everything we do has a particular focus. When our focus is primarily on the concerns of white, middle-class America, who do you think we will attract? When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I think that one reason we (when I say "we," I am referring to white, middle-class America, because that is the majority of the PC (USA) and I am part of it) were so shaken is because we could easily imagine - "that could have been me." Working in an office building, wearing a business suit...  When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and killed nearly 2,000 people, when we saw images of (mostly poor, minority) individuals crowded into the Superdome, we had compassion and pity, but how many of us really thought, "that could have been me"? Perhaps more of us thought that after the tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa (a university town) and Joplin (a town with racial demographics roughly equal to the PC(USA)). How disconnected are we from what is going on in the rest of the world? How disconnected is our worship from what is going on in the rest of the world? From what is happening in our country? If our preaching and worship and the programs and foci of our church are primarily geared to and shaped by the concerns of white, educated, middle-class America, we will continue to attract white, educated, middle-class America.

Some blinders we wear without knowing they are there. If we are ignorant of the privileges in our society (white privilege, male privilege, socioeconomic privilege...), how can we address the systems of injustice that we perpetuate? I just saw a tweet from the GAMC meetings remarking about how all of the faces in a new video on evangelism in the church were male. How many people working on that video planned, made, and edited it without recognizing that oversight? 
Do you think people were paying much attention to tax collectors and sinners during Jesus day, or did Jesus draw the attention of the good, upstanding citizens in a new direction? Jesus challenges the authority that we don't even realize we take for granted. In the church, we must seek understanding in the ways that we have knowingly or unknowingly participated in systems of oppression and injustice, and repent. This is a huge educational component that must be undertaken in the church if we are to be a community that truly seeks peace and reconciliation, and preaches that from the pulpit.

We also need to educate our churches about the changing demographic landscape. It is easy for diversity to remain a non-issue in many churches - particularly in communities that remain predominantly white. Even in those churches, and particularly in areas where there is more diversity, we need to be more aware of how our communities are changing, where immigrant populations are coming from and where they live, and where people live on the margins. 

2 - We need to be aware of the power of our structures. Many of our church structures were established by white, educated, fairly wealthy men. Intentionally or unintentionally, our structures have served as gate-keepers, ensuring a continued homogeneous body of church leaders who often lack the very awareness of the privilege of the majority to make any substantive changes. We have tried to insert structural "fixes" to the lack of diversity, but they are still part of an overall structure that is blind to its prejudice. As a result, we have "let in" some additional diversity, but how much of a voice have we allowed that diversity to have in terms of making substantive changes? I think particularly of immigrant communities and the many structural hoops that make it much more difficult to receive official recognition and inclusion into the PC (USA). The new Form of Government makes some strides in loosening certain structural obstacles, but more work needs to be done.

3 - "We" need to be willing to let go! So much has changed in our lives and in society in the past century, except in many of our churches, where 19th and early to mid 20th century models for church are alive and well! Perhaps not well, but still alive... In times of change, we anxiously hold on to the familiar. Perhaps we equate the saying "In times of change, God is still the same" to "In times of change, the church is still the same." In our churches, we need to honor what has been without idolizing it, and let go to make room for the new thing that God is doing through the Holy Spirit. In our churches, we need to be open to receive and use the gifts of a diversity of people - even if it means doing things differently or dropping some beloved traditions.  We need to enable diversity in our leadership wherever we can - on sessions, in committees, in worship leadership, and in programming. We need to let go of the idea that this is "our church," we need to stop worrying about "the way we've always done it," and instead recognize that in God's church, when the Holy Spirit moves, it can be a bumpy and ever-changing ride!

4 - We need to broaden our horizons. Most of the growth in Christianity is now happening in the Global South. There is a wealth of music, liturgy, stories, images, and resources that are being created and used across the globe, and we can benefit by incorporating it into our own worship and mission. If we truly believe that we are joined with believers in every time and every place, our worship should reflect that! Our fellowship should reflect that! 

5 - We need to have courage! We need to be willing to try new things, willing to do things differently - and willing to FAIL. The church does not exist to continue in perpetuity. It exists to follow Jesus, and that ultimately leads to death before resurrection can take place. Are we willing to risk even our existence for the sake of being the body of Christ that God is calling us to be? Are we willing to use the resources that we have  - and let's face it, many of our churches have *substantial* resources, even as budgets, membership, and giving decreases - in order to fund new initiatives and new ministries specifically to reach out to those who are missing from the church? To meet the needs of a changing world without any agenda but sharing God's love and hope to a world that hungers for it? I write this from my office in a large church building on Main Street, in the "new addition" that was put on to the church in the 1960s. The congregation was founded 228 years ago, making it (we think) the oldest Presbyterian church in Kentucky. And this church is one of the last mainstays of a "traditional" worship service in town. In other words, I can appreciate what a huge, scary, challenge this all sounds like. But we must have courage, grounded in the hope of Jesus Christ, who came and shook things up, and hasn't stopped shaking since.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Once and Future Church?

I am currently serving as a member of the Special Committee to Study the Nature of the Church in the 21st Century. Quite a mouthful, isn't it? It's an even bigger task. Our committee was formed by an action of the 219th General Assembly in 2010, and our task is to present our findings and recommendations to the 220th General Assembly, in Pittsburgh in 2012. We first met in January of 2011 and determined that we needed to listen to many voices, throughout the church, as a central part of our task. Over email and various technologies we came up with a list of 5 questions to help focus our work, and over the past 6 months we have been circulating these questions far and wide, asking for input from church leaders and individuals at every level of the church.

In May we met again in Louisville, where we had two and a half very full days of listening to individuals at the denominational headquarters. In July we had a presence at the Big Tent in Indianapolis, where we talked to visitors to our table in the exhibit hall, and also had a special session for conversation during lunch one day. We are grateful to everyone who has responded!

Now, it is our turn. Next week we meet again in Chicago, where we will speak to some more church leaders, but also have more time to begin to collect our work and start the writing process. Each of us is also responsible for answering the five questions ourselves, so my next few blog posts will be answers to those five questions.

To be honest, after all of the listening, reading, thinking, and reflecting, sitting down to write answers has proven to be more difficult now than it would have been before this process. I don't think there is any single right answer to any of the questions, and my responses are just part of the discussion. They certainly aren't "answers," and more than a lot of what I write, they are a work in progress - part of my ongoing reflection on questions even as we live into the reality of what they address. I warn you in advance that I can be wordy, but I do invite your comments and discussion as I post!

 The questions are:

  1. What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?
  2. What characteristics will draw the great diversity (racial ethnic, age, gender, etc.) of our country into our community of faith in the 21st century?
  3. What do you think are the highest priorities and challenges for the church in the 21st century?
  4. What unique voice do we, as Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, bring regarding vital ministry in churches and in society?
  5. How do we move the church past division in theology, evangelism and mission to work toward unity in Christ?

What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?

As I go back and forth between this tab and my twitter feed, I realize that so much communication happens in 140 characters or less, so I thought I would try to answer the question in 140 characters or less. Here goes:

More community, fewer committees. Shared leadership, shared fellowship. More out there, less in here. More questions, fewer answers. Honest.

More community: the church needs to be a koinonia, reclaiming that gift from the early church that is intimate fellowship and sharing - and often tied directly to the act of sharing the communion meal, as in 1 Corinthians 10:16. The cup of blessing and the bread we break is a koinonia (translated sharing, communion...) of the body of Christ. People are hungry for community, and there are many ways to participate in communities today: online, at work, in school, through sports, the arts, civic organizations, etc... But the church has the opportunity to offer something different: community that is intimately grounded in the Holy Spirit, uniting people in time, space, worship, and mission that also tends to the spirit. The sacramental connotations of koinonia are also significant. Regular celebration of the Lord's Supper and remembrance of our baptisms consistently brings our focus back to who we are, whose we are, what unites us, and what sustains us.

The church of the 21st century will be community based. Already the vast majority of our Presbyterian churches have fewer than 100 members. We need to recognize that reality and learn to celebrate the gifts of the gathered community, no matter how big or how small. To be small (especially after having been much bigger) is often seen as a sign of failure or death, but there are opportunities to be church in new and different ways that must be honored and celebrated. I think that many churches will continue to be small, and there might be structural changes that we need to make in order to support those small churches and their ministries.  There needs to be more training and support for bi-vocational ministers. Many small towns that cannot afford a full-time minister also do not have the economic opportunities for a minister or spouse to earn enough to supplement even a part-time income.  If, at the very least, pension credits, death and disability, and health insurance coverage was guaranteed for all ministers, regardless of congregational size, that could help to meet immediate and future needs of the minister, who could then be more flexible in finding other income sources without worrying about those benefits.

On the flip side, there will continue to be large churches, and those churches will continue to thrive - particularly if they can foster growth of smaller communities within the bigger one, through small groups or other similar programs. Our largest churches can also be in a position to plant new churches, or neighborhood fellowships, or they can offer support to smaller churches within the area. Again we can learn from the early church in the sharing of resources.

The church in the 21st century must be a place where genuine community is fostered and nurtured, where members encounter Christ in the body of Christ, and are then equipped within that community to go out and share the good news that they have heard. The community of faith will be a place where lives are changed through encountering the triune God.

Fewer committees: For many elders, there is little difference between serving on the church session and serving on the board of a nonprofit organization. Both involve lots of meetings and lots of work to accomplish the tasks at hand, and often, at the end of one's tenure, one steps down for a much needed break. Sometimes the least active members in a church are the ones who have recently completed a term on session or service on some other major committee, such as a Pastor Nominating Committee.

Church governance structures will be more fluid. Recognizing that we are continually discerning God's call for our ministries, many programs or functions of the church can be organized by ad hoc groups - or communities within the church - for a specific time or season. Church "business" at its best will be carried out in communities of spiritual discernment rather than by standing committees modeled after corporate boards. Just as we now have a leaner "Form of Government," I think we will need to evaluate church structures at the church, presbytery, synod, and general assembly levels and become leaner, more nimble, and more mission-driven.

Shared leadership: As our church communities and structures become more flexible, we must also be more open and welcoming to new members, less rigid in doing things the way they have always been done. People will move in and move out. What works well in a community for one particular season may no longer meet the same needs a year down the road. If we truly believe that we are the body of Christ, and that each of us is a gifted and necessary member of that body, we must actively seek and encourage input and participation from each member of the body. We should also seek out those members of the body who are absent, to invite them to share their gifts so we may benefit from their voices, as well. Authority in the 21st century church looks much different than it did before. It is recognized and shared only within the context of community, and ultimately, comes only from God.

Shared fellowship: Church is not something that we do on Sunday mornings. It is a fellowship that ought continue throughout the week. Weekly worship might not happen on Sunday mornings, and it might not happen in a sanctuary. Worship shapes the fellowship that continues 7 days a week. If we are serious about developing communities of faith, we need to seriously attend to the fellowship that we share - time in worship, communal prayer, study and discussion, support, and celebration. Fellowship will be shared over meals, over drinks, and in mission together. It will all be part of the rhythm of our life together as a community of faith.

More out there: There will be more integration of faith in our daily lives. We will be church in service in the local community and beyond. We will bring church to homes, restaurants, bars, and workplaces. We will see ourselves as members of a community sent out each week to share God's love and bring the good news of the gospel into the places where we live and move. In other words, church will be more relevant in our lives and in the world.

Less in here: Let's first address the building. Many of our churches struggle with dwindling budgets and old buildings in constant need of care and repair. In my humble opinion, the extent to which some church budgets are tied to upkeep and maintenance of a historic building is idolatrous. Then the primary "mission" of the church is literally just keeping the doors open. What if we took the building out of the equation, or at least changed the equation a bit? Some churches have sold their buildings and used the proceeds to fund important ministries. Other churches, building-heavy but member-lite, have opened up their space to community groups, to other worshiping bodies, to service agencies, or for other purposes that can use the space and help to pay the bills. As new church developments or new fellowships begin, existing churches can provide space and support. Or new developments can actually meet "out there" where the people are - in coffee shops, bars, apartment buildings, schools...

What happens in the church building - if there is a building at all - will be a much smaller part of being church. So many of our churches are so insular and inwardly-focused. We want more members to come into our churches (with their wallets) who can take on their share of the tremendous burden of serving on committees, running the same programs that have been run for the last 50 years, and helping us to keep the church going. It's almost parasitic! We are recruiting new blood to come in and give us a transfusion so we can continue to do the same things we've done that have led to our dire need for new blood...

The church is called to ministry at the risk of its own life. We are not called to save the church, to resurrect the body of the 1950s, or anything like that. We need to be less concerned with maintaining what is "in here" and more concerned with bringing God's message of hope and peace to the world that is "out there."

More questions: We live in troubling times. We live in confusing times. We live in changing times. All of that raises questions. As a church, we need to be a place where questions can be asked, where doubts can be raised, where fears and anxieties can be shared. We also need to be asking more tough questions. Questions about the poverty and injustice that we see around us. Questions about greed and ethics. Questions about prejudice and hate. Questions about the implications of our faith in the complex world in which we live.

Fewer answers: Preaching and teaching will be more dialogical in nature. Theological training must also be more nimble, preparing leaders for changing contexts of ministry. We will be in deeper dialogue with Scripture and with each other. Remembering that Jesus often answered one question with another, we will wrestle with the questions that Jesus asks. We will spend time waiting on the Holy Spirit, asking questions that lead to more questions. We will have to become more comfortable living within the tensions of life, embracing the uncertainties while grounding ourselves in the hope of God through Jesus Christ.

Honest: as in authentic. In much of what I have written thus far, I have painted with broad brush strokes rather than filling in details. I think the church of the 21st century will have many different and varied expressions, but each one must be authentic in its context. There must be honesty in preaching and in leadership, authenticity in sharing and in fellowship. The church must respond to the realities of context, and context can vary widely from one place to the next.

The church must be honest about God, and unabashed in sharing the gospel, in proclaiming the good news, and in inviting others into relationship with the triune God. The church must be honest about ourselves - that we are all broken people, in need of healing and salvation, that we participate in systems that oppress and do not honor the image of God in all of humanity and creation. We must be honest in our encounters with the Word of God, illuminated by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must be honest in our task and charge, to proclaim the coming reign of Christ and to work for reconciliation in the world today.

And honestly, if we try to do any of this on our own, without God's guidance, help, strength, and wisdom, we will fail.