What is the future of the church?

This week, many of my friends received word that because of financial shortfalls due to a variety of factors (less investment income than anticipated, reduced giving, a graying population), their jobs were being eliminated. I know–this happens in businesses.

But this hurt even more because their positions weren’t just in a business. They were church positions–ministerial positions and support positions. The people in these positions have seen what they do as more than just a job; it’s been a ministry. Some of them will retire; others will (hopefully) be able to find other avenues where their giftedness can continue to be shared. But others, I’m afraid, may find themselves bitter and scarred. I know how that feels–I’ve been there, and only by the grace of God was I able to emerge on the other side.

My faith tradition isn’t unique in this challenge. There are others who are struggling with similar problems.

But it does raise the question…what is the future of the church?

I suppose in many ways it depends on how we define “church.” If we’re talking about hierarchical structures with strong organizations and institutions, I think there are going to be significant changes. Some of them I will undoubtedly mourn, but others can be exciting.

What is the church? Is it a group of people whose beliefs are pretty homogeneous? who meet together in a building once or twice a week and then go their separate ways? whose emphasis is on meeting budgets and using the most recent program emphasis that their denomination has created?

Or is it something more?

What if we began to see “church” more as a verb rather than a noun? What if we worried less about having the right beliefs and more about doing the right actions? Actions that protected the vulnerable among us…that made sure that everyone had access to food, shelter, clothing, and education…that worked towards restorative justice instead of harsh punishment? What if we focused on the things we have in common instead of the differences that separate us? What if we celebrated our diversity instead of fearing it?

In my own faith tradition, I think there will still need to be some institutional organization simply because we are a worldwide body rather than simply a group of congregations loosely knit together. But I think we will have to find new ways to organize that will speak to a world that often turns aside from denominational labels because of the ways in which many have been abused and marginalized by those who claim to be acting on behalf of a church.

I believe that there is value in meeting together with others whose spiritual journeys are similar to my own. We speak a similar language and can support each other in valuable ways.

But there is also value in meeting together with others whose spiritual journeys follow a different route from my own. That helps me to be reminded that what I think I know about the One who created all of us is incomplete. We can learn from each other.

I think that something has to happen. We cannot go on the way we are…for many reasons. And perhaps rethinking what “church” is will help those of us who follow the one called Jesus Christ to reclaim the foundation he laid…the foundation of love for all of God’s creation.

What kind of Christian?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while…what kind of Christian am I? what kind do I want to be?

There are many voices in our news today, loudly declaring their Christianity. But most of those voices do not reflect the kind of Christian I want to be. They seem to me to be hypocritical voices…proclaiming Christian values, but living otherwise. They proudly proclaim they are supporters of family values…while often they are on their second or third marriages…or have been caught exchanging sexual messages with someone other than their spouse. They loudly proclaim that women must have the babies they are carrying–regardless of how the child was conceived or whether the mother’s health is at risk–but cut programs that would help that child and parents after birth.

These same voices also seem to say that their religious values condone discrimination against those who are different…whether that difference is racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, political. They promote religious freedom–as long as what is desired agrees with their own understanding of religion. They fight against the declaration of “religious law” while not seeing the irony found in their desires to proclaim their own understanding of religious law for everyone.

If this is Christianity, then I am not a Christian. However, I am a follower of the one who was called the Christ.

Why?

There are a number of reasons. Perhaps the simplest is that I was born into this tradition…but that would not necessarily keep me in it. A more important one is the spiritual experiences I have had that have led me to this Jesus and the way he allows me to see God.

And a third is that I have seen–and read of–Christians whose words and actions match. Perhaps the best example I have seen are the Christians of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. For four years–from 1940-1944–these people, who would have had every right to turn their backs, instead provided refuge for about 5,000 people who otherwise would have been killed because they were Jewish. This wasn’t just one or two people who did what they thought was right…it was an entire community. If even one person had spoken out of turn, the entire community would have been destroyed. Instead, thousands of people were saved.

That is the kind of Christian I want to be…one who sees others through the eyes of love and acceptance rather than of fear of differences. I want to be the kind who lives out what this Jesus said when he was asked what the greatest commandment was.

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them. (Matthew 22:37-40 The Message)

Loyal opposition…faithful disagreement

I spent some of my formative years in England, beginning my schooling there. The only reason I mention this is because it is important background to the rest of this post. When we came back to the United States, it was somewhat of a culture shock…at least as much as can be recognized by an 8-year-old child.

But one concept I returned with–and one I thought the United States had adopted well–was the concept of loyal opposition. It acknowledged that everyone was not going to see things the same way, but that all those involved in decision making had an interest in doing what was best for the country…and were willing to listen to each other. It didn’t demonize those who had differing opinions. It recognized they were loyal citizens who simply had different points of view. Individuals on opposing sides could argue vociferously with each other–and then at the end of the day could go out to dinner with each other.

Over the last several years, though, I have watched as that concept has slowly disappeared.

Far too often, individuals on different ends of whatever spectrum you want to talk about seem to fail to see each other as human beings. Nor do they seem willing to listen to each other. There is demonization of each other…of each other’s points of view. There is unwillingness to see that there may indeed be valid differing points of view…and that the role of those who govern should be to hear them and then to find ways of working together for the good of the nation.

And so we have gridlock.

I don’t know for sure how we’re going to resolve this issue…but in my own faith tradition, we are trying. Trying to revive the concept of loyal opposition…faithful disagreement. We have had some contentious issues to deal with. In my own lifetime, I can remember the first time we dealt with a significant change in church polity–and the tremendous numbers of people who left because they could not accept the change that allowed women to become ordained ministers. And unfortunately, at the time, we did not have a way to acknowledge that we could disagree and still (hopefully) find ways of walking the journey together. It has taken a long time to heal some of those breaches, and some probably will never be healed.

Now we are dealing with another difficult issue…allowing ordination and sacramental marriage to be made available to both heterosexual individuals and members of the LGBTQ communities. And again there is significant disagreement. The difference is that this time church leadership has provided guidelines for and acknowledgement of the idea that good people can disagree with each other and still work together for the good of the body. There will undoubtedly still be some folks who will leave our community…but I believe that there is still the possibility of learning how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Perhaps what I hope for is best expressed by a poem written by Danny Belrose, a friend of mine (and former leader in my denomination):

If we cannot be on the same page,
can we be on different pages in the same book?
If we cannot be in the same book—
can we be on the same shelf or
in the same section
in the same library?
And, if not the same book, same section,
or same library, can we at least celebrate
that we have been penned into creation
by the same Author?
We are inextricably connected,
irrevocably part of the family of God.