The Shifting Church, Part 3
Welcome back. We’ve come to my third and final musing on church. Drawing conclusions are hard, but I’ll do my best.
Remember that picture in the previous blog? If you didn't see it, you can find it here. That was my grandparents’ farmhouse. My grandmother was born in that house. So was my dad. There is more than a hundred years of family history there. My parents and I used to drive hundreds of miles to visit Grandma and Grandpa Carr at that house most every summer and winter through my youth. My nose would be against the car window for the last 30 miles in anticipation of spotting the farm lights on the horizon.
By the time I was around, my grandfather wasn’t actively farming. Remnants of old barns and chicken coops remained but I had to just use my imagination. All the same, this was my happy place. I donned my overalls first thing in the morning and followed my grandpa out the door to see what kind of fun we might get into and to play farmer for the day. Dinner (that’s “lunch” for you city-folk) was a feast, and our evenings were serene, watching a little T.V. or working a puzzle. Grandpa snored in the recliner. Grandma sat in her chair next to him playing a game of solitaire.
When I was in college, my grandparents decided to sell the place. They felt the need to live closer to medical assistance so they moved ten miles into town. My grandmother, after leaving behind the only home she’d ever known, died the next year. Grandpa followed her a few years later. Last I heard, the farm belongs to a distant cousin . . . one I’ve never met. I guess you could say it is still in the family. But I knew after it was sold that I’d probably never see the inside of that house again. I still think about it quite often.
If the situation had been different and the house and farm had come to me, what would I have done with it? I have been considering my answer since sharing Tickle’s metaphor with you.
Thinking through this is a meaningful exercise in discussing the future of the church. Any talk of preserving, restoring, modifying, or reconstructing this “homestead” of ours should hit very close to home. When we discuss updating or scrapping the place that has shaped us, we must do so carefully. Our generation knows what might be lost in the process if we act too hastily. And yet, we also recognize the burden of possessing something that means a lot to some at the same time as it feels out of touch for others.
Author Shawn Lovejoy had an extensive collection of Hot Wheels. As a parent, Lovejoy gave them to his son hoping that he would love the toy cars, maybe even passing on the cherished set to future grandchildren. But there was a problem. His son didn’t love the cars the way he had. They mostly lived in a closet collecting dust. One day, without Lovejoy’s knowledge, the cars were included in a pile of giveaway items.
While the author uses this story to make a different point, I cannot help but see its relevance for this conversation. Sure, I loved my grandparent’s farm. I have a lot of memories there. But if all of sudden I was given the chance to give my wife and kids a first-time tour would they feel any nostalgia or connection? And even if they did, would any of us choose to live there? I doubt it. Sad but true.
Where then do we go?
You might recall that we began this discussion looking at some troubling statistics. The church is in decline. Something should be done. We can read disheartening numbers as a rejection of Christian ideals and values. Or, we can take the hint that old forms simply don’t evoke the same meaning to current generations. This is why, given the opportunity, I would choose the Tickle’s fourth option of “new construction.”
If that seems harsh, realize this is my calling. I’m a church planter. I’m supposed to think differently. Hopefully there are leaders of established churches or energized disciples who are ready to take bold steps with me to buck the trends and stop the bleeding. Consequential obstacles may require dramatic solutions.
Just because I believe that a new construction is in order for my context, I do not deem to speak for all of us. As I said last time, we should have the freedom to discover our uniqueness while we hold space for the different conclusions of others. Let us agree that context and environment matter. Church is not—and should not—be McDonalds. What may be effective in Little Rock may never work in Little Havana. Even within the same city, we might benefit from a variety of church expressions that connect with different people groups differently.
This has not really been our strong suit in the past. We love conformity and sameness because it is simple and orderly. Ironically, the drive for alignment and agreement has actually increased our disagreements.
If you’re interested in what I’m talking about, read Will Mancini’s Church Unique. Discover what is special about your context and get specific about ways to make an impact on your community. Imagine if more churches specialized in certain ministries. As we settle into our uniqueness, we hopefully find the opportunity to let go of needing to be everything for everyone. (That’s a relief!) What if we were okay with getting really good at one thing while we supported our friends across town who were strong where we were weak?
I see untapped power inherent in a variety of expressions. We should recall that Jesus had unique expectations for Peter and John (John 21:18-22). Remember that the early Church benefited from Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways (Acts 15:36-41). We even know that no two of Paul’s churches looked or acted exactly alike.
This brings me back to a point from my first blog. We need to release people for ministry even if they don’t fit our mold. Too many well-intentioned, creative, and energized disciples have been shot down or discouraged because what they came dreaming about didn’t match a leader’s expectations.
I have no problem with identifying and staying focused on a particular vision; we should not apologize for our visions. But let’s also not discourage people who feel inspired by our energy and focus from discovering their own unique calling. Let us give them our blessing (and some funding would be nice) to start the halfway house or the after school program or the new worship service aimed at the missed demographic. Then, let’s stay in relationship with them even if they get too busy to attend and support our thing. Can we commit to resisting the temptation of Kingdom competition?
We--you and I--have this unique opportunity to discover and shape the hereafter of Christian expressions. I believe the future is bright. This mission is worth our effort, our creativity, and our shared resources. It might even surprise you to hear me say that I don’t think we really need more “church planters.” I believe we need more disciples who take the calling and the opportunities uniquely afforded them to share the gospel wherever they live and work and play.
What do you say? Will you join me?
The Shifting Church, Part 2
In my post The Shifting Church, Part 1, I discussed where we and the church are now. Specifically, I opined on the state of churches and asked some questions to get us thinking critically. Based on shared statistics, I conclude that churches are not connecting like they should.
A good, long look in the mirror seems in order. If we are unwilling to do that, then any new strategy might be like reaching for a bandaid when stitches are really what we need. (Um…why are my metaphors so violent? Sorry. Here’s to hoping the future of the church is peaceful.)
Ok, bear with me as I share a longer post this time. I believe we will find it thought-provoking and integral to our discussion on the subject.
Where We Are Coming From
Phyllis Tickle, in The Great Emergence, explains that, through its history, the church has experienced a major shift every five hundred years. A thousand years ago was the beginning of the Great Schism, the split that led to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Then on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther inadvertently started the Great Reformation. Even though other dramatic developments have taken place within the last five hundred years— including the Restoration Movement that led to Churches of Christ—authors such as Tickle agree that the five hundred year mark is significant.
What “great” shift, then, is upon us today?
According to Tickle, those who could, at one time, be firmly found in one of four categories, or quadrants, of Christians--Conservative, Renewalist, Liturgical, and Social-justice—are moving away from their traditional polarities and convening near the center as they search for authentic faith and practice. Even secular religion historian Stephen Prothero says, “Christians identify less and less each year with labels of this sort" (God is Not One, p. 82).
Have you ever dropped a quarter onto one of those colorful donation boxes in the center of the mall and watched as the coin slowly looped around the plastic vortex toward the hole at the bottom? Many Christians, like coins, seem to be circling through the four quadrants, borrowing from one another’s traditions and perspectives, and becoming what Tickle labels “The Great Emergence.”
My Journey Through the Quadrants
Come to think of it, this is a pretty accurate description of my journey. Growing up in churches of Christ, I remember being drawn toward a desire for the experiential in ways that our tradition had mostly neglected. This was more than just teenage excitement in response to youth group
highlights. I overheard talk about the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit. I watched as some found cause to introduce demonstrative forms of worship as their personal expression. We may have not know it, but we were leaning into and borrowing from Renewalists, such as
the Assemblies of God.
Later when I was in college, I was introduced to the deep mysteries and traditions of liturgical churches. I was not alone in my curiosity; there was a sudden collective interest in the church calendar, uses of lectionary readings, and contemplative postures from ancient mystics. A few years later, a friend and I were reading and discussing The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. We began to judge faith by its concern for the least of these and were suddenly attuned to social justice.
This journey produced in me an appreciation for the many forms of Christianity. At the same time, it required that I let go of the unnecessary trepidation of becoming like “those” Christians —whomever “they” were. Over time, I grew in my faith as I found a wide variety of expressions
that helped me discover an authentic and diverse set of practices for my personal development.
I’m not the same as I was back then. And I’m glad for it.
All of this discussion might send shivers up spines as some fear losing a particular distinction or heritage. Some might even suspect, based on my coin metaphor, that such a movement leads Christianity (or at least our wandering sons and daughters) to fall through the center and out of sight completely.
My bad. There is no drain; there is no hole in the vortex that threatens our existence. Sorry for the confusion.
Tickle proposes that this flow will draw some out of their quadrant and into one of four “currents" around the center, as you can see in the graphic above.
Approaches to Repairing and Restoring
Tickle uses the following metaphor to further desribe distinctions within Christiantity.
Imagine that you’ve recently inherited an old farm house that has been in your family for generations. You have a strong connection to this homestead, even if the years of wear and tear show its missing luster. Now it belongs to your generation. It is up to you to decide what to do with the house. And let’s assume that you have already resolved it would be a shame to just sell the property to a stranger who doesn’t know the meaning held within.
How would you approach this home?
Some may be fine to dust off the cobwebs and shake out the rugs. They won’t find any need to get new furniture or change much of anything. Their grandparents’ old couch and bed will suffice after a little cleaning and repair. For them, it will bring great joy to know that they are living just the way that their family always has. It will be sweet to hear the floorboards creak like they would have under Grandpa’s footsteps. They will rest easy in Grandma’s chair out on the porch. Sure, they’ll have to learn how to use the old wood burning stove to heat the house, but they will feel a great honor in doing so every time.
Others will say that the furniture is beyond repair . . . and so are some parts of the house. They believe there is something about this century old home that could shine again with a little effort. They will set out to restore it, refurbishing the floors (fixing the creaks), repairing missing baseboards and hardware. They will even update the wiring and the HVAC to bring in some modern comforts. However, the goal is not to notice major changes. They want to work hard to make the old feel like new again.
Then there are those who will say moving a wall or two, adding a much needed second bathroom, or modernizing the kitchen will not change the connection one has with the original place. In fact, they might even argue the changes are the only thing making the house livable in this modern age. They suppose, “Grandma and Grandpa would have done the same if they
were still alive.” This family concludes that it would be silly not to swap out drafty windows and install modern appliances. In no way does even the most drastic updates jeopardize any connection they hold with the past.
Finally, there will be others that maintain great fondness with the homestead even when the original house is gone completely. They may argue that the view from the house or the land it sat on is the real heritage worth building upon. Now, in the process of tearing down the old house and building a modern place to live, these thoughtful folks may designate mementos from the old to feature in the new. They may save a section of the flooring where Grandma used to stand in the kitchen to hang prominently on the wall. Maybe they’ll keep that old bench that used to live by the back door where Grandpa would sit and take off his muddy work boots every evening. For them, the memories will live on and the connection to the past will remain long after the physical features are replaced.
Or option five.
I really don’t think there is a wrong answer here. I might argue that we need all of these systems to address the homestead, or the church, of the future. Any of these approaches, done with authenticity and intentionality, can be an option worth the effort. And yet, can we also appreciate and honor the journey of others who arrive at different decisions from us?
Our opportunity here is to foster a positive landscape, fertile for producing unique takes and fresh approaches while avoiding drawing boundary lines of distinction and alienating the brave.
Remember: even if we’re in a different current, we’re all swimming in the same water.