Messages of Hope

Incubating new ways of being church

Published / by Sandy

Amongst things that took my attention is an article, and an invitation. They are no doubt conversation partners, and they both have me thinking…..

The first is this article by Arthur E Farnsley II on Sojourners, addressing the decline in Christian attendance in western countries. Behind the story of Christian decline and the rise of “nones” (those with no particular religious affiliation) is a long-standing debate about what religion theorists call “secularization,” the broad process by which religion gradually loses its social influence. In the mid-20th century, secularization theory was integrated into the story of western progress. Modernity – including individual choice, rationalism, empiricism, and science – would march forward, and religion – alongside traditionalism more generally – would recede as other kinds of ideas, located in other institutions, filled many of the roles religion once filled. By the last two decades of the 20th century, secularization theories were in retreat for a number of good reasons. Most people did not stop being religious, in the sense that they still had beliefs, intuitions, feelings, and practices they defined as sacred. Modernity had not pushed spirituality out of their lives. In 1994, sociologist Mark Chaves redefined secularization as declining religious authority and suggested we stop worrying about whether individuals thought of themselves as religious and focus instead on religion’s social influence. Social roles for women, for people of colour, and for those who are today called LGBT were strongly circumscribed by tradition just a few decades ago, and that tradition was underwritten by a widely shared religious orthodoxy. Today, individual choice routinely pushes tradition, and institutional religion, aside (as we see in the current discussion in the public arena around same sex marriage). If the rise in “nones” continues, as seems likely, liberal religious groups will continue to lose members and influence because they are already on the modernist side, meaning many of their core values are expressed in other institutions, including government. They will wrestle with modernist/traditionalist divides within their own ranks and try desperately to reinvent themselves, but history does not appear to be on their side. There’s a challenge to consider…..

And the invitation…
This was an email invite to an online seminar with people like Brian McLaren and Pete Rollins on the topic, Common Cause Communities, part of Hatchery LA which aims to ‘incubate innovative, sustainable models of church’. Brian McLaren says the word ‘missional’ has become hackneyed, but that the real core of the word means that ‘churches exist to bring benefit, blessing, life, vitality, enrichment to a community’. Interesting to note that the Pilgrim Uniting Church mission statement states that ‘we are called by God to be a prophetic witness in the city of Adelaide so that new life and vitality will be generated in our city and in its people‘.
Spencer Burke from Hatchery La writes: ‘We are witnessing another fundamental shift in church culture with the decline of teaching-centric churches and the rise of service-centric churches.
Traditionally, there have been three important components to church – a common faith/experience that holds us together, community (relationships, meal sharing, sacred ritual), and teaching (including biblical exposition and moral exhortation).
He says, ‘now we need to ask some very fundamental questions’. Do we need to own a building that is used 10% of the week for a 90-minute attractional or teaching service? Does it make sense in this environmental, carbon-footprint world to drive to the suburbs to sit and listen to a non-interactional presentation, especially when people can capture that teaching while they’re out exercising or driving to work? Does the teacher even need to be present?
It’s clear that people still want commonality and community. Those two aspects of church are staying strong, but what happens in the middle is what holds it all together. What is happening, then, is a shift from a common teaching community to a common cause community.
What does the idea of cause look like in reality? Simply, it answers the question, “How can we love our neighbour?” One beautiful thing the church has (indeed, has always had) is people who are committed to finding ways to love each other and others around them. In this way, we are resource-rich. If church shifted its purpose to utilizing these resources, a church might look like a mobile barbershop or a community garden, a tutoring program or serving in a senior Alzheimer’s centre. In fact, over the last ten years, we’ve seen these models emerge with great success.
In a service-centric church, the weekly focus shifts from the attractional, teaching-based Sunday morning to a multiple-day throughout the week involvement with the community around a cause. Just as Jesus says “come follow me,” rather than “stay and hear me out,” that’s where the majority of the church will reside – serving with each other.
The focus becomes, “Let’s love our neighbour together.” And as the community does this, discipleship naturally happens. The lines between these two pillars of the Christian faith blurs, just as the lines between leadership and congregants also blurs.
Of course, service is most powerful when it is organized and intentional, so there remains a need for good leaders. They need to be able to guide people through the question, ‘why we do what we do’ (covering philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology); offer facilitation – how to inspire, manage, and develop people (without having to run everything themselves); and entrepreneurship – how to create innovative and sustainable models of ministry in the future. With these skills, we can step boldly into a new way of being the church that answers Jesus’ call and reflects what the early church looked like. It’s a new form of being the church that isn’t all that new after all.

The article and the invitation – much food for thought and dialogue!