Author Brian McClaren relates a cool story about one Argentinean family's efforts to help an impoverished, indigenous community in the southern mountains of Argentina. The family partners with the community to address their greatest concern, their need of a school to educate their children. This family provides the architect, rounds up volunteers to help build and together they accomplish their goal.
McLaren writes, "But a question wouldn't let go of my attention: 'Why, I asked her, 'didn't the people try to build a school before?' My experience in many slums and depressed areas in the previous months had brought this question into focus. In so many cases, thousands, millions of people scraped by day after day. Often, they sank into alcoholism or turned on one another in violence and crime. If they had only organized themselves and combined efforts, they could have made a profound difference.
"This paralysis, this complacency, this self-sabotaging behavior were not just problems of slums, I had come to realize: they also were typical of my own country, of the so-called civilized world in general, and its failures to address our critical global crises--politically, environmentally, economically, socially, spiritually. What holds us back? Why do we continue to persist in ways of living that are so complacent, so pathetically counterproductive, so obviously suicidal?"
So McClaren posed his question to his Argentinean friend. "What held the indigenous people back?" Without hesitation, she replied, "The people had no hope."
When Jesus starts his ministry, he goes to the equivalent of his hometown church and reads from the book of Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus concludes saying, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Today!! Not at some distant point in the future. Not in the age to come. Today. Now. God's Kingdom is here! And if we believe this, there's a whole blueprint in the gospels on how to frame our life and it's really got nothing to do with how societies have chosen to structure life for the last 2,000 years.
But do we believe this? Do we believe a better world, a better life is possible, right now, within our grasp? Do we? I don't think so. I don't think we really believe this at all.
Certainly I don't see much evidence the church believes it's own message. If it did, we'd have a very different church in North America today. What we have now and what we have mostly always had are churches that have chosen to accommodate society. I'm speaking in large generalizations here, but the facts are deeply disturbing. For generation upon generation we have lived with societies that allow a select few to have an enormous amount of wealth and power while the ever increasing majority has not enough. And so often the church has identified itself with the powerful minority. Our whole system of civilization keeps reproducing these same results. And the church, that body that is supposed to get in there and have at this system from within, has, in the end, done very little. So my conclusion is we have a church that at worst, likes the domination system and at best, has no hope for changing it. Neither of those responses have anything to do with following Christ, being a Christian.
I have some serious reservations about the traditional structure of the church. Our structure has sucked a lot of life right out of the equation and there must be life in order for there to be hope. Why do we confine church to a few hours one morning a week? This boxes church in, limiting it to a strictly defined place and time. Even more concerning is the role of the pastor. Churches have come to rely far too much on the pastor to chart the course for the congregation and so the church isn't invested in the nature and essence of church as it needs to be. Therefore for most, church is simply the structure provided for the pastor to work with. If you have a good pastor, the structure performs well enough. If you have a bad pastor, things go south fast. And if you have no pastor, well, you have no church. Furthermore, there's something troubling about church spending most of its financial resources on its pastor(s) and its building. And yes, as a pastor who makes her living pastoring, I realize I'm shooting myself in the foot here!
Do we believe Jesus' teaching and example were realistic for this time and place or is it all just pie in the sky? You see how one leads to hope and the other smacks right into resignation and complacency? I have much greater hopes for the church. Church is to be that place that encourages, inspires, motivates and loves us enough to challenge us to live better lives. Church is to witness to hope through an active faith in this world. Church is to be a manifestation of God's Kingdom made visible here and now. If our structure, if this Christendom relic we've inherited, has become an obstacle, stealing our hope away, then it's time for a reboot.
This indigenous community in Argentina, they did something really interesting with their completed school. They gave it to the Argentinean government. They wanted their school to be a public school. And the government didn't quite know what to do with this and had to be persuaded to accept it.
McLaren writes, "Why was it so important to the indigenous people for the school to be a public, government-funded school? Because if the government was responsible for the school, it would, in effect, finally be recognizing that this little indigenous community exists and is part of the society. By owning the school, the government would be acknowledging that this little village was not just a village of 'poor Indians'--it was a village of genuine Argentinean citizens. In this way, the people of the village showed how great their hope really was: not just that their children could be educated, but that their nation could be changed as well, converted from its racism and exclusion, and they would be given a place of respect and value in it."
Hope reborn. Faith moving mountains. A church with enduring hope, real hope, will move mountains. Do we dare believe in all God has promised to do with and through us? That's the question. What's our answer?
(Everything Must Change, by Brain McLaren, 2007)