I guess I’ll begin with a bit of autobiography – and a brief confession. I was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1993. I’ve since served three regular congregational calls (Sheffield/Ludlow, PA 1993-1997, Davenport, IA 1997-2000, Albia, IA 2003-2008) and two short-term interims in 2001 & 2002. I recently resigned my pastoral call in order to be a full-time student again, specifically to complete my dissertation within the next two years. However, I will also admit I’m thankful to have had a reason to disengage myself from formal ministry. Recently while at church with my family, I asked myself if I desired to be up front again – preaching and leading worship. My instantaneous and almost visceral response was, “No way! Not a chance!” You might ask, “Why do I feel this way?” I think it is because I no longer believe…
I no longer believe in the church as we currently experience and structure it. I no longer believe it works – that it accomplishes what it is supposed to do. I no longer believe that the large amounts of time and money we invest in “ministry” is really ministry at all. Lest you think I’m just grumbling about my own denomination, let me assure you that I’m not. I grew up in a sectarian, fundamentalist sort of tradition (Apostolic Christian); I attended an evangelical college (Wheaton); I received my theological education at a mainline seminary (Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN) and at a European university (Tübingen, Germany). I’ve seen and experienced a broad spectrum of Protestant Christianity, worshipping over the years in a wide variety of churches (Bible, Covenant, Episcopal, among others). The issues that disturb me about the contemporary church seem to be true across the board, i.e. in just about any and every context: congregations as we currently conceive of them invariably exist only to exist. They construct buildings, create budgets, hire paid staff, etc. supposedly to propogate the Gospel, but too often wind up only striving to perpetuate themselves. So, I find that I have become a doubter.
I doubt whether or not Jesus ever intended for buildings to be built, maintained, cooled, and heated for the purpose of being used 1/168 or 2/168 of the week. I doubt whether Jesus ever intended for his followers to be defined by the consistency of their church attendance or the amount of their giving. I doubt that Jesus ever intended for pastors to be paid a fulltime salary (complete with full benefits & a free house) or the minstry of the laity to be reduced to filling slots like ushers, greeters, and lawn mowers. I doubt that Jesus ever intended his followers to reduce all the complexities and mysteries of the Godhead into a set of three or four talking points that must be memorized, recited, and repeated verbatim. I doubt that Jesus ever intended for an entire for-profit industry to develop around selling “Christian” books, clothing, chocolates, diet plans, etc. I doubt all of these things because…I’ve read through the Gospels, and that’s just not what I see Jesus doing there.
Sure, I know that doing church in these assorted manners is easier than attempting to creatively and uniquely face each day as it presents itself to us. Besides, it fits with our way of doing business in this day and age. Yet, perhaps the time has come to question this “business-as-usual” approach, instead of uncritically modeling our religious enterprises after business plans. Maybe it’s time to question the institutional approach to faith, instead of quarreling about which form, or name, or size budget our institutions should take.
You might ask, “What are the alternatives?” I don’t know for sure, but I’ve got a couple of ideas to throw out for the cohort’s consideration. What if instead of believing that the main function of a congregation is to stage an entertaining, edifying, and aesthetically pleasing performance each week in the hopes that more and more people will attend it and get goosebumps during it, we were to gather weekly with family and friends and neighbors and even complete strangers in small groups/conventicles/house churches (choose the name of your choice) in order to be communities of forgiveness – concrete incarnations of God’s love in Christ? What if we gathered not primarily (and selfishlessly) to fill up our spiritual tanks, but rather to creatively give away whatever we’ve found in Jesus (knowing that this will vary from person to person and group to group)? What if each of these small groups/conventicles/house churches pooled their money locally (as they were able and led) and mutually decided to help end world hunger, eliminate poverty, heal addictions, and/or reduce greenhouse gas emissions however they could? What if we gathered together with other small groups/conventicles/house churches every once in awhile (say on major church holidays like Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, to name a few) to have a big party (worship & fellowship) to which anyone could come? I wonder if living out our faith in this manner together with our children and friends would prove a more “effective” approach to Christian education and nurture than most pre-packaged Sunday School lessons. What if we were known not as the people who declare that they believe this or that about God, Jesus, faith, etc., but as the people who simply practice kindness, compassion, and justice on account of God, Jesus, faith, etc.? What if?
So, what draws me to the emergent conversation? It’s the only conversation I’ve encountered to date that seems to be asking these kinds of questions. It’s the only broad-based commmunity I’ve found to date that’s willing to take a critical look at what’s right AND wrong with contemporary assumptions about the church in all of its current forms. It’s the only community I’m currently aware of that’s willing to take an honest look at the burning issues of 21st century existence and to begin its conversation and ministry there.
Returning to my original confession: why am I relieved to be out of traditional ministry? Because I’ve chosen to opt out of a system I no longer believe in. The questsion facing me now is: what will I opt into? Does an alternative currently exist or is a new one waiting to be created? What do you think?