The obsession with state-of-the-art facilities, complicated bureaucracy, and partisan political clout that defined Christianity for centuries is ill-equipped to minister in our emerging postmodern culture. I’ve been asking some questions in recent years related to these points that may help initiate conversations in your context about a pilgrimage of faith that looks beyond the trappings of modernity and Christendom and toward something more faithful to the ways of Jesus.
(1) Are church facilities used often enough to justify their expense? How do church spaces enable people’s encounter with the divine in worship, art, food, love, and companionship? Perhaps a question that should be asked – could your congregation accomplish the mission of God’s dream of peace just as well or better without your building? For some the answer will be “no.” And I believe that, for some, the answer should be “no.” Beautiful and historic cathedral spaces that accent the holy journeys of faith communities for centuries speak into our faith now, a reminder that we inherit a great gift from our forebears. But, I suspect that for many others the answer to this question will be “yes.” Perhaps your work in God’s dream could be better accomplished without a building. Maybe your congregation invests a disproportionate amount of financial and human resources to maintain a facility that is not used to its full potential. If so, consider renting space from another congregation or engaging in partnerships with non-profits to expand facility use. A building for the sake of a building, and a building that sits empty for most of the week, does little to advance the good news of God to the poor and disenfranchised. Let’s turn our spaces into holy spaces of worship, prayer, and sustained service, or turn them loose and move forward.
(2) What is the purpose of your organizational structure? Do your committees, boards, vision statements, and hierarchies adequately and efficiently equip persons and people to do the work of justice, peace, and service in the world? And practically – are you simply filling spots on teams because they are required by bylaws or a constitution? We need to simplify the work of the church without cheapening its purpose or merely mimicking our culture’s fascination with busyness. I love a challenge and I love being involved in the work of something important, but very few in my generation want a religious experience or commitment that is gimmicky, designed for novelty’s sake, or busy for the sake of looking productive. We must create pathways of faith and service that are substantive and move us beyond ourselves and our organizational structures and toward the world we serve. For example, worship must create space for reflection and for encountering the mystery of God. Education, Bible studies, and small groups should enable real fellowship and deep learning. And the organizations that coordinate and empower these tasks must do so in ways that don’t make the work all about the bureaucracy. Meetings for the sake of meetings, or committees for the sake of committees, should never exist. A team that plans worship should spend time praying together, practicing the components of the liturgy, deepening their understanding of faith. Trustees of an organization should spend their time deepening their understanding of stewardship and seeking out better uses of money and resources. In these ways, a committee becomes a community and its purpose is more focused and stated.
(3) How does your congregation understand citizenship? Does your worship, vision, and teaching proclaim allegiance to and belonging in God’s reign in Christ? Are you profoundly counter-cultural in proclaiming the peace, justice, and hope for which Jesus lived and died? Or practically – does your congregation’s space have an American flag prominently placed, sending a conflicting message with the cross about authority and allegiance? One defining characteristic of the early church – and one still practiced by most Anabaptist groups – that needs to be reclaimed for our contemporary Christian movement is a communal identity that is intentionally and purposefully post-national. While we live in a specific geographic place, the mixing of allegiances (or even prioritizing of allegiances) sends a mixed message to ourselves and the world around us about the purpose of the Church. While Caesar may desire and crave religious legitimization for their imperial reign, we can and must respectfully decline. At the end of this world’s new birth, when all the nations of the world have been swept into the dustbin of history and all that remains is God’s glorious reign in Christ, can we be counted among the citizen-saints of that realm that said, “The kingdom of God, only and always”?
Let’s be a new church for a new time and see what God will do through us.