I read a lot—not as much as I want, but a lot. I love reading as much as I love being in conversation with people. The conversations I have been having lately seem to revolve around a few common threads:
- our church is not what it used to be
- the world is not what it used to be
- I just want it to be like it used to be
But the reading I’ve been doing seems to be in conflict with my conversations. I’m reading about decline and even death as an opportunity for hope and vision.
The words that caught me in her piece are:
Survival is a transformational process. Being lost is not a location. It is a transformation. . . . Transformation requires fresh eyes, fresh ideas, but mostly requires acceptance that things are different.
But, as she writes, transformation, real transformation, may require staring death right in the face and seeing with new eyes “something wondrous and inspiring.” Is this where we are as the Church, particularly my context in the PC(USA)? Have we gone far enough down this treacherous spiral to really look death in the face?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Maybe we have to individually answer them, or at least in our individual contexts. But I found Theresa’s piece after reading a post by Randy Woodley—associate professor of Faith and Culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary—entitled, “Authentic Jesus Generations: Woodstock to Wild Goose”, as part of his lead up to speaking at the Wild Goose Festival, a Woodstock-like festival for Christians in Oregon coming up in a few weeks (anyone want to sponsor a pastor, I’m open to it!). Woodley kinda slams the “Sunday morning church-building crowd” as being inauthentic, lifting up instead those spiritual pioneers in the emerging “faith movements” when he says:
What most of the Sunday morning crowd doesn’t get that other faith expressions are seeking to learn about, is authenticity. Part and partial of knowing the authentic Jesus is having a primary concern for the poor and marginalized.
Ok, he doesn’t “kinda slam”, he pretty much tries to lay us out flat. I don’t know much about his context other than what is on his professional profile. I don’t know what his experience has been in those “Sunday morning crowd” churches, but it doesn’t sound like it has been all that positive. I consider myself steeped in the “Sunday morning crowd” with a foot in the “emerging Christianity” scene. I take offense at his insinuation that this crowd that I serve is somehow less authentic than the emerging expressions of faith, and that we have no concern for the poor or marginalized.
I serve an intentionally social-justice minded congregation who sees themselves as authentically seeking to be in the mind and heart of Christ with a clear vision to reach out to the poor, the homeless, and the marginalized, and more than just with our checkbooks (though we do that too). We reach out to the immigrant (whether documented or undocumented), and being in Arizona we are at ground-zero of the immigration issue, seeking to lift up the humanity of our immigrant sisters and brothers who, for the most part, are simply trying to provide for themselves and their families, not steal jobs or corrupt our nation. We are intimately involved with the homeless in our area and trying to address not just the symptoms of homelessness but also the systems that throw people into the situations that put them at risk.
What makes us unique, compared to “service organizations” is that our calling to these ministries is born out of our understanding of Christ’s call on our lives. We are not always good at it. We are not always successful at it, but we keep trying. We keep calling one another forward, and we keep trying to look at what is in front of us as opportunities for hope and vision. And to throw us under the bus as Woodley does is irresponsible, unfair and anti-Body of Christ, in my mind. Again, I cannot speak to his experience or context, but I’m not sure he has taken good look at what is happening on those Sunday mornings, or the rest of the week in those buildings, to really get a good idea of what is really happening (can’t judge a church solely on Sunday morning, there is usually much more happening outside that time and location).
I don’t believe we’re dying, though we may be in crisis (lost at sea, etc.). I don’t believe we are inauthentic or somehow “less spiritual” than other emerging or ancient expressions of Christian faith and community. I do believe we are trying our best to look reality in the face, recognize that things are not as they used to be and will never be, and to take the risks necessary to live into whatever new reality we find ourselves, in order to remain faithful to the love of God that pulled us into this in the first place.
If you are part of the community I serve or another, I’d love to hear where you see authenticity in that community. What visions of hope or transformation do you see emerging from your context? There may be a lot of death-like stuff happening, or at least “lost at sea” moments, and those are important to name as well. But, at the risk of tipping toward Pollyanna (and I’m not convinced that is necessarily a bad thing), I am confident that even in the most dire of circumstances there are glimpses of wonder and inspiration while holding in paradox the tragedy or crisis that lays before us, and I would love to hear what you see.