One Foot in the Grave, the Other Searching for Solid Ground

So, I was thinking some more about the Church this week. I was thinking that it seems like we have one foot in the grave (see The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church post from last week) and the other searching for solid ground.  A dysfunctional family, a failing organization, an individual with all kinds of problems all find it easier to stay dysfunctional, to continue to fail, to live with problems than change.  It is not because people in these situations are stubborn or stupid. It is often because not only is change difficult, but even the act of imagining a different way of doing things is beyond our reach. Everyone thinks that things as they are represent “normal.” But as Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” “Normal” is a state of slavery to the past, it is a state of complacency and comfort – even if it brings death.

If you have ever watched the show Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network you can see the power that “normal” has over people who really want to succeed, but can’t.  Each episode brings the burly, Australian chef, Robert Irvine into a failing restaurant to see if he can turn things around. He is often abrasive and intolerant, mostly because he has to be.  You have to kill off “normal” before you can move ahead.  He rarely suggests radical things – other than remodeling the place.  He demands good food, healthy and responsible staff. committed leaders.  Usually all of these are lacking because the “normal” that has been established has normalized poor quality, low standards, lazy work and clueless leadership.  I often wonder if we could get this guy to do a show called “Church Impossible.”

So, I was thinking about “normal” in the Church and comparing that to what seem to be some core realities of the emerging world around us. I draw thoughts on emergence reality from studies from the Pew Forum on Religion systems theory and people like Phyllis Tickle in her book Emergence Christianity and Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity to name just a couple of sources.  My thoughts here are not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination.  Just an exercise in trying to imagine a new way of being the Church.

“Normal” in the Church is neat, tidy, familiar – even if it does not work. The emerging world is messy, confusing, and unfamiliar.  It calls every assumption into question.

“Normal” is thinking of the Church as an institution that plays a role in shaping culture, or as an organization that must be sustained. Today, institutions are losing their grip as expressions of collective wisdom and power. There is a general mistrust of institutions of all kinds and shapes, even government and higher education. You may be thinking, “But what else could the Church be but an institution, a denomination, an organization?” (See how hard it is to imagine the new?)  Well, the Church was not always an institution of culture. In its earliest form, the Church was the followers of Jesus, hiding from culture. The Bible often tells us of not institutions, but families as expressions of God’s people in the world. The emergent reality seems to be that we will not create institutions to further our principles and visions.  It will be (and is already becoming) the other way around.  People of shared commitments, visions and commitments come together in covenant.  Networks of small groups, individuals working together on a common mission, relationships expressed in a shared vision of life – these all create community, but not through an institution.  They can later become institutionalized, but that is a different matter. Lutherans should know this.  We are not Lutherans because of institutions like the ELCA, LCMS, LWF or other alphabet soup organizations.  We are Lutherans, in a messy and diverse manner, through common confession of faith as articulated in the Book of Concord. Common values, beliefs, vision and mission will tie people together more than organizational structures and that will provide solid ground.

“Normal” is thinking that science and “religion” are at odds with one another; that scientific knowledge is the enemy of faith. The advent of the “modern age” was tough on the Christian faith.  It poked holes in biblical stories and challenged the cosmic and moral vision of scripture. A war broke out that still rages – creationism or evolution; scientific fact vs. religious belief.  Emergent thinking embraces scientific reality AND seeks spiritual dimensions of life in a unified manner.  The “normal” Church standing firm against scientific realities makes the Church irrelevant and look foolish. If forced to make a choice between faith and science (a false choice) people will ultimately choose science because they want drugs that make them better and technology to improve their lives. Putting science and faith in dialogue and synthesizing meaning for life from both is a path to solid ground.

“Normal” is stating ultimate truths as monologue. The institution of the Church, for centuries, spoke with a singular voice of authority on moral and religious matters. There was one answer to every question. Today, people leave the church in droves precisely because it speaks in this fashion.  That is because in our age, dialogue is valued over monologue, and contextual realities teach us that what is true in one place is not always the same someplace else.  It is true in science, where we know that the observer asserts influence over the observation. It is true in all other areas of life. The strident tones of TV evangelists and preachers who pronounce eternal truths (and then break their own rules) will not sustain us. Dialogue, honoring context and allowing for multiple interpretations seems essential to finding solid ground.

“Normal” is not technological. The Church still seems to think one of two things: Either technology is a passing fad and so it needs no attention; or that technology is a savior and will solve all our problems. These are two sides to the same coin.  Neither takes the challenge of technology seriously.  Technology is not just making churches use email, Facebook and text messages. It is not just screens and video in worship. Technology is changing the way we relate to each other; it is redefining the way in which we interact with the world. Technology is shaping our brains to receive information and remember in different ways. It calls for us to re-think our faith in ways we never imagined.  Solid ground will not be found if we ignore technology.

“Normal” is homogeneous.  Through common doctrine, common traditions and rituals, the goal of Christian community was to create a unified community. The result in today’s world is that “church” in nearly any form, does not reflect the racial, economic, intellectual, cultural diversity of the culture. We don’t know how to be a congregation unless everyone looks, acts, thinks, and believes the same way. But that homogeneous vision can’t be realized.  It will not give us a path to solid ground.

“Normal” is expecting that everyone wants what you offer. In the movie Field of Dreams a voice said, “Build it and they will come.” So, a guy built a ball field in Iowa and they came. The Church used to, and still does try to, operate that way.  If you started a little church and hung a sign out front that said Lutheran, all the Lutherans would come. That was because everyone wanted what you were offering. If you gave them a cup of coffee and welcomed the people who looked just like you into your group, they stayed. That was enough hospitality. That is no longer the case. Many are not looking for what we offer.  If they do come, they come checking us out — are we doing what we say? Are we living out the life we proclaim? They are looking for transformed lives and they want to find people whose live have been transformed. In addition, when they come, it takes more than a cup of coffee and a doughnut to connect. Newcomers are looking for healing and hope and they need deep friendships and meaningful involvement that changes the world.  Radical hospitality that welcomes people into our lives, not just our lobbies is a path to solid ground.

“Normal” tries to maintain distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, in and out keeping the world neatly black or white. Sadly that is not how people view the world today – maybe they never did.  Life is paradox, it is gray, neither black or white.  Good guys and bad guys look the same.  Solid ground will be found in finding how we live in the “muddle of the middle.”

So, that is what I have been thinking about the challenge of having one foot in the grave and the other gingerly seeking solid ground.

Pax Christi – Pastor Tim