How do we get off the road? How do we join the earliest disciples in their journey, for which a single change of clothes and the greatest possible trust in God was enough? How do we do this together, so that we don’t play generations or theological stances or ways of doing church off against each other, adding to the divisions of Christendom? Let’s try some basic ideas.
First, let’s get some clarity on mission. The Bible talks about the church in many different ways: herald of good tidings, a people sent, an attacking army (remember that line “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”?), the cosmic body of Christ, God’s household, and other things. The church is not a dispenser of goods and services, but a body of praying and serving people. We don’t point to ourselves, but to God living in us. Selling the church as such is almost the worst thing we can do. We “sell” the story of God’s redemptive work in us and beyond us.
Second, let’s shift from an idea of the church member as consumer to the member as seeker of God. All of us are seekers, and all of us are trying to grow in our love of God, our faith in God’s promises, and our hope for a better life for everyone. A lot of my friends want us to get rid of the idea of church membership altogether, because they think it’s unbiblical (which, technically, it is) and, more seriously, unhelpful. It reinforces divisions (insiders and outsiders) that don’t quite make sense. I’m not sure I think we have to get rid of the language altogether, but my friends have a point.
Third, let’s think small. Now, I’m not criticizing big churches. That’s not the point. Healthy big churches work hard on building relationships in small groups, and they use their size to accomplish things that small churches usually can’t pull off. The problem is not size as such, but anonymity. Let me give an analogy. When I was a little kid, I used to love to go to my grandpa’s service station. It had two gas pumps and a garage for a mechanic. And it was a gathering place where people had relationships. If you couldn’t pay for your gas this week, Grandpa Sullivan would put your name in his little book so you could pay next week. Contrast that with the chains I buy gas at now. They’re quicker, more efficient, probably more environmentally responsible, and they sell more of the junk food we like on long trips. But relationships? Not really. In our increasingly fragmented world of people bowling alone, churches have to think pretty carefully about community.
Fourth, to tie all this up, let’s talk about stakeholding. In other words, are there people in our churches whose absence we would not miss, whose opinions we do not consult, whose faith we do not consider, and whose wisdom we don’t draw on? My guess is that the answer is yes. Think about the incredible waste of that situation. How do we give more people more of a stake in what happens in our congregations? This especially applies to the young and the old, but it applies to all of us.
These are some thoughts. I’d welcome your comments. Next time, I’ll try to talk about the intellectual/theological issues we face today.