I have been struggling recently with the direction that the church as we know it is going. I’ve read that you can look through history and see that every 500 years there is a great shift in the Christian church. The last one began when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of his cathedral, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation.
The world changed then.
We are back there now; at an impasse again. We have to account for what we have done, the habits we have created, the behaviors we allow to survive and inevitably, we have to ask, WHY DO WE DO THIS?
There are so many denominations in the Protestant tradition now. The denomination I know best, the PCUSA, is one that is fast becoming less and less like the tradition I found myself rooted in as a child. It is hard to know if you are going or coming and I don’t think I stand alone as we all start to question what we believe and what is motivating that belief system we hold on to.
There is a lot of talk about the “None” generation (the folks who check “none” as their religious affiliation) and how this is the fastest growing religion in the USA. Groups are constantly gathering to discuss how to attract the “Spiritual but not Religious” people into an organized community of faith. Then there is an ever present push to try and rope back in all those souls who have been “burned by the church” by showing them that our church would never do that to them…
This is a mess and no one seems to have the answer for how to really do any of it well.
In class the other day, one of my classmates who is also an ordained pastor, said that she often wonders if things started to decline in the church when we decided we needed a specific building and people to work inside of it in order to be "church". She suggested that in doing this, the church turned into a space to maintain and salaries to provide for. Raising money suddenly takes the shape of personnel committees, property maintenance and goals for keeping up the “stuff” in the church rather than actually allowing focus to be solely on the work of the church (church meaning the community of people who worship Jesus). I can’t help but think she has a point and I have been employed (gratefully) on a church staff. It is really hard to read the book of Acts and imagine that we have create the best system possible in what we have now.
What I have heard and read is that a lot of organized churches are losing membership. There are some that are growing which is nice to hear, but that story is much more rare. What I really want to question is something that could perhaps blanket the whole of the last 500 years of the Christian experience in North America.
How can growth make you lose the vision?
Have we lost the vision of the church, the original gathering of disciples who promised to follow the ways of Christ himself?
At what point does the institution need to be bigger to make a bigger impact?
In my experience, the bigger the institution the harder it is to make a lasting impact. If you really think about the space or people in your life that have changed you for the better for a lifetime, I guarantee those were intimate, vulnerable spaces that you shared. Lasting transforming (for good) is just not something I think is better when it comes from something bigger. But then again, I don’t believe that number tracking is a way to reveal lasting transformation. They are just numbers. I am talking about life transformation.
If you think about lasting social movements, I can’t think of one that started big. They all started small. They started with a few people, floating meeting places, and a lot of passion. There was a foundation of similar values and beliefs and this motivated an authentic action that took hold because it was real. These movements grew and grew fast. Hungry people go where there is bread.
These beginning movements started as something fluid, like a river carving its way through the rocks of the earth, they flow where they could get through. These movements were energetic, adaptable, unpredictable and full of life because they are motivated by the WHY, the heart. Over time, they gain success (however that is defined) and change can really start to occur because they become organized. Organizing creates growth. This growth often leads to more growth and suddenly you don’t have a river anymore, you have a massive lake. A lot of good can come out of a lake. There is water for power and drinking, and fish for eating. However, there is trouble too. A lake can become polluted, stagnant, full of run off or it cause flooding for those living around it. A lake is settled in one place, it is too big to move, too full to transform into anything new; it doesn’t flow. This fluid movement of energy becomes crystallized. The organization is now focused only on one thing- survival. Survival is not growth anymore.
We have learned in the Stages of Faith and that faith stage 1 is the hardest to help people evolve out of. The reason is because folks here are not capable of meeting their basic needs and all that their human minds can focus on is surviving. It is too much to ask for someone to have faith and work towards a better version of themselves, when all they need is to figure out where their next meal is coming from. Survival is not where growth happens. Survival only focuses on one thing- not dying. The problem is that focusing on “not dying” is that you are not focusing on living. Does that makes sense? Living, true living, is about growing. Growing can be and is defined by the church in a lot of different ways, but the type of growing that I am seeking from a religious experience is in my heart. I don’t care how many people are crowding into the pews if no one is experiencing any sort of life transformation.
This brings me back to my question: How can growth make you lose the vision?
I am not implying that the church has lost the vision or that the PCUSA has lost the vision. I am wondering where we are in this process. Clearly, we are in a season (probably a long one) of great change. We are already experiencing an uncomfortable shift into something that no one has really given a good definition for so far. People need something different from the church, our technology has changed, and the world is as our figure tips. What does this mean for our faith? How do we live as faithful people in the world as it is today? What is the church for people today? How is that we want to grow in faith now?
Whatever the answer is, I think it is going to come back to something more fluid. It is going to come back to a question of vision. What is the vision for the church today? Is it the same one we have held on to for the last 200 years? Is it is a new one being birthed as we speak? Was it communicated to us 2000 years ago and we lost sight of it with all of our processes, systems and organizations? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that we MUST ask.
"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.