Friday, January 6, 2012

Pews are Just a Symptom

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver writes in her blog post entitled “The Problem with Pews” about worshiping in the round. She says:  

This population [her congregation] of urban, postmodern young-ish people have a deep critique of consumer culture and as such are far more interested in being producers than consumers. This goes for church as well. And being able to worship in the round creates an accountability of presence to each other and a shared experience which allows for the community to create the thing they are experiencing rather than consuming what others have produced for them.

I think Bolz-Weber is onto something – that people are searching for something to belong to, to participate in, and to help create. Bolz-Weber has many ideas about creating a worshiping community organically from mostly non-churchians that are worth examining, and she writes about them in her blog entitled Sarcastic Lutheran. Christian communities can never be about adopting wholesale some other church's idea of how to be and do church, but must always be about creating something authentic where the Spirit speaks to their people and they hear Her. 

In a recent reflection entitled “Seven questions every church should ask,” the Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi of the Anglican Church in Canada writes: 

In fact, I have come to the conclusion that there are no “one size fits all” answers, but that each church will need to develop its own style of ministry in connecting with its own unique environment. This is a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” process that needs to be discerned at the local level rather than imposed by any hierarchy.

From my perspective, within a denomination (aka a hierarchically organized church), there must be not just accommodation, but true embracing of a dispersed version of church that is authentic to each local context. Bottom up, not top down – much more challenging to manage than a turn-key operation where everything is by the book. In other words, no more cookie cutters, which makes raising up leadership with a different sensibility, one that is not married to vesting authority only in themselves, a prime consideration. This means that the way in which we educate clergy and how seminaries are oriented must also change. You won’t get a new and different church that meets the future by continuing to prepare clergy using old models.

This kind of change will take time and probably be evolutionary, which is going to be too slow for our needs. Times of great change require quicker, bolder responses. Notice that I didn’t say don’t bother with having the discussions with stakeholders and don’t bother having a plan; you still need conversation, and you still need plans. You just need them quicker, and you will most likely have to tolerate conversations and plans that are works-in-progress and good enough rather than finished and perfect. Tolerance for ambiguity is a key attribute that contemporary leaders who will lead into the future will be required to possess.

It would be wonderful if we were able to break out of our self-images and take some risks, recognizing that some choices will work out and others won’t. We also need to lift up and embrace those few revolutionary leaders who come knocking at our doors, rather than sending them elsewhere, because we need to be challenged to become new versions of ourselves. And it just may be the case that some of our beloved leaders and clergy won’t be the right ones to take us into the future. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

The challenge is how to support such ministry with sufficient dollars to pay a clergy person and overhead when congregations such as Bolz-Weber's often do not generate sufficient plate and pledge revenue to support themselves in even very nominal settings. Ethnic ministries focused on serving recent immigrants also fall into this category of congregations that are unlikely to be self-supporting based on plate and pledge. We should not forget that ministry to local communities of recent immigrants is also mission work, just as our focus on churches in Africa or Haiti is mission work.

Lack of a "church" home of their own has not prevented Bolz-Weber's congregation from doing some unique ministry, such as delivering gifts of sack lunches to people who have to work on Thanksgiving all around Denver, made from real roasted turkeys and home-baked goodies. [Bolz-Weber's congregation currently shares space at St. Thomas Episcopal Church while searching for a new space of their own.] Lack of financial resources likewise does not prevent ethnic congregations from providing culturally sensitive ministry to their communities. It just looks different, and all the members of the congregation have to work hard and work together to support and serve the community. Food and community meals play a large part in every ethnic church that I know of.

Maybe it's time to question the plate and pledge model of funding as well as the concept of a church home. After all, plate and pledge are not biblical, although the tithing and giving from first fruits in thanksgiving to the Lord are. And maybe as a source of initial seed money for new ministry to the unchurched, we need to look at releasing some of the treasure that we have locked up in church buildings to do the Lord’s work.

I just watched the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables and was struck again by the bishop’s gift of the candlesticks to Jean Valjean, saying “I have bought your soul for God.” I know it’s just a story, but in the story, Jean Valjean’s story was changed by the conversion of the church’s silver. Maybe it’s time to repurpose our beloved church buildings to do more than just serve worshipers once or twice a week and to repurpose our giving to the church to do more than just support the spirituality of those already within our communities.

Nicolosi closed his reflection with:

“Churches that can rethink their assumptions of ministry, reformulate their mission strategy and re-examine their way of doing church are more likely to revive and renew than the ones that do not. These “missional” churches will lead us into the future–confident and resilient, open and affirming, life-giving and liberating, with a compelling gospel message that centers on Jesus combined with flexible methods of ministry.”


Anne said...

Thank you for these thoughts, Lelanda. There are so many parts of "church" that many feel have to be present to be "church"--what would happen if we started from scratch thinking about what we need to worship and to love our neighbor? Maybe some things could be let go while new things would come into play; some will work and some won't. But haven't we got to try?

Also, seven faith communities in Boulder work with Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO) to open their facilities one night a week to give our homeless a safe, warm, legal place to sleep when it is dangerously cold. What a loving way to put an empty building to use over night!



Thank you for commenting. I agree with you that we have got to try to do some things differently if we want to continue to meet our neighbors where they're at. That doesn't mean that we repudiate our traditions, but it does mean that we open our arms to allow others in to participate in expanding our practices so that perhaps we build new traditions together.

I very much admire the work of the volunteers who are putting together activities such as Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow, because the need is great. These kinds of ministries are demanding, too, because the need doesn't stop just because a volunteer gets tired or has other things to attend to. So, thank you for all your energy devoted to helping our homeless neighbors to stay warm and in some instances, to stay alive when it's frigid outdoors.