A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Things to look for in the future church (part 1)

Before I begin - a disclaimer: We stride forward into the future by allowing our past to serve as our guide. Not one of these ten characteristics are original ideas, though context perhaps puts a modern twist on things. In fact, the future church, above all, is at work modeling itself after and nurturing a 21st century renewal of the early church as described in Acts, inspired by Jesus’ example and teachings.

10 characteristics to look for in the future church (#‘s 1 - 4)Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief. That is the path to becoming and being someone different. The path of transformation. It is also the path found in the New Testament; the Way of Jesus that leads to God. Long ago, before the last half millennium, Christians understood that faith was a matter of community first, practices second, and belief as a result of the first two. Our immediate ancestors reversed the order. Now, it is up to us to restore the original order.

- Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion)

#1. The Great Reversal This is a component of the future church many authors have described. Diana Butler Bass gives it an especially thorough treatment in her book, Christianity After Religion. This is to say, much of what I share here, I have borrowed from her book. The idea is that since the time of Constantine, the church has ordered her priorities around believing first, than behaving and finally belonging. This is evident most clearly perhaps, in the way we handle our children. When they are dedicated or baptized as infants, their parents give their assent to certain beliefs that will provide the overarching framework for their faith education. When they are old enough, we enroll them in Sunday School, so they can begin to learn proper beliefs as well as behaviors. Before they are baptized or confirmed, they must take a class which outlines very explicitly the beliefs of their respective faith tradition. Only upon confession of that faith is membership granted.

When we decide to look for a new church home, most often we are especially interested in what the potential congregations on our list believe about certain issues dear to our hearts. And very often, we refer to ourselves not as “followers,” but as, “believers.” That’s what we do, first and foremost. We are defined by what we believe.

But, as Bass points out, this is a rather odd way of approaching things and it certainly isn’t the order Jesus or the early church followed. In a like manner, the future church looks to restore the original order - a great reversal that turns the present order on its head and instead arranges itself around belonging first, then behaving and finally believing.

When I decided to learn how to quilt, I began attending the mission worker’s gatherings in my church where we would sit and quilt together. I was warmly accepted and enjoyed the rich camaraderie present around the quilting frames. Within this circle of belonging, I watched as women, expert in quilting, flashed their needles in and out of the cloth and I tried my best to imitate. I welcomed tips they would offer when my frustration began to get the best of me. By the time I joined the quilting group, our little group met for only a handful more times before winding things up for good. I didn’t have enough time in the behaving stage to really form any well-informed beliefs about quilting other than that it was really difficult and took a lot of time! But I imagine if I had asked any one of the elderly women whose back curved over the frames, they could have offered quite a number of personal beliefs about quilting that time and experience had formed.

Jesus’ first task was not to set out a creed of right belief. He didn’t quiz potential followers on the merits of baptism by immersion or sprinkling. He didn’t ask them what they thought about the use of militant force. No, the first thing Jesus did was call a group of people together and to form a community where each person, no matter his or her background, felt as if they belonged. With community established, Jesus still didn’t begin in on beliefs. Rather, he said to his disciples, “Follow me”. Do as I do. Watch and learn. Eventually, he began sending these individuals out to practice healing and exorcizing on their own. Through their experiences, they began to form beliefs and ask questions of Jesus and together they would have wonderful give and take conversations. Belief slowly formed.

What would it look like it we reversed the order? Would church feel different if we didn’t worry ourselves so much about what newcomers believed but instead worked hard to foster a healthy sense of belonging? What would it feel like it we allowed our experiences to inform our beliefs - if behavior, doing, were given a higher priority than right belief? I believe our children and grandchildren are going to be working to help us answer those questions.

#2. New (old) understanding of “faith”When we stare into the abyss, the idea of faith as an intellectual construct doesn’t just evaporate. It mocks us. It reminds me of people who stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and talk about the weather or lower back pain.
- Robin Meyers (The Underground Church)

Again, this is a characteristic harped on by many authors I’ve read. It is also another critique of the traditional church’s preoccupation with right belief. So absorbed are we (and have been for century upon century) with believing properly, we have even hijacked the very definition of faith to serve our purpose. Today faith and belief are used interchangeably.

A few years ago, I got rather ticked at the way faith seemed to be paired so often with belief and certainty. “I have faith it is so. I believe it is so. I am absolutely certain it is so.” That is not an articulation of faith. In fact, I’d call faith and certainty polar opposites. Faith embodies all sorts of doubt. That’s why it takes faith to have faith. Faith is a leap beyond what we can know for sure. It is an uncomfortable journey with uncertainty. Or, as Harvey Cox, author of The Future of Faith, says, “Faith begins with awe in the face of mystery.”

It is true, in the New Testament the words “faith” and “belief” are used interchangeably. But these words meant something very different than these same words mean today. Jesus and his disciples would have understood both faith and belief to be a deep and radical trust. Trust not in our own opinions, but trust in God. This, of course, opens the doors to a wide diversity of opinions about God, opinions to be contemplated, held gently, cherished and tested in the context of community.

What would it look like if we replaced both the words faith and belief with the word trust in our church language? Would we maybe start loosening our grip on certainty just a bit? Is it possible a new humility might rest upon us?

#3. Questions welcomed here!If the church has a future, it will lie in its ability to inspire its members to….refuse to uncritically accept the settled answers of the past, resist the pressure to conform, and revere the continued search for meaning.
- Philip Gulley (The Evolution of Faith)
I love questions, in part because you never know where they’ll take you. Good questions take you on a journey and let you out at a very different spot than where you started. In this way, they are transformational. But no doubt, questions are scary too. In my church, we ask a lot of questions. This promotes a sense of freedom and possibility. And together, we grow in our understanding of and relationship to, God. However, the journey is often uncomfortable, and even perilous at times.

It’s time to open wide the door for all kinds of questions, aware that tough questions will inevitably change who we are, how we understand ourselves and how we live out God’s vision in our world.

Here are some questions I’ve come across along the way….*
- What shall we offer to those who are not believers and yet wish to be followers?
- What’s the difference between organized religion and religion organizing for the common good? How does your faith community rate?
- What are the world’s top global crises? How do the life and message of Jesus address those crises?
- Is church necessary?
- Do I have to believe in the virgin birth or a physical resurrection in order to be a Christian?
- Will what I am about to do result in the growth and betterment of others?
- Will this action increase love or diminish it?
- Will humanity’s wisdom be expanded by my efforts, or am I appealing to ignorance and narrow-mindedness?
- Can one reject theism without rejecting God?
- What are you willing to give up to follow Jesus?

4. Increased pluralismThis one might come as a bit of a surprise to those of us living in rural America, where we typically don’t have a mosque around the corner or a synagogue across the street. But just as Christianity is declining, the number of Americans who are affiliated with other religions is on the rise. Even more striking are the increasing numbers of people who either switch religions or choose to remain unaffiliated.

Diana Butler Bass, who researched many different current religious surveys for her book, Christianity After Religion, writes, “By 2010, in a stunning change, America’s third largest religious group--and one of its youngest--is ‘unaffiliated,’ an independently minded group, with no single issue, theology, or view of God….If these trends continue at the current pace, ‘nones’ and other religious combined will outnumber Christians in the United States by about 2042”.

But this is only part of the picture. Through reading and conversations, I sense a new openness in how we envision God as well as an honest desire to hear from others, (whether those others be Christian, Muslim or pagan) about how they experience God in order to broaden personal horizons. Christianity, from its very inception, has worked to borrow best practices from other religions and incorporate them with its own (Sabbath day; centering prayer; yoga). The future church will do so with much more intentionality. More and more often I hear people state with conviction, “We are all worshipping the same God.” My quote for this characteristic I take from Philip Gulley in his book, The Evolution of Faith. It is representative of the general sentiment emerging in Christianity…

Jesus’ embrace of the divine will was rich and full. But that degree of participation with the divine has not been limited to Jesus, for persons in different religions can readily identify others who’ve done the same--Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, Baha’u’llah, and Gandhi, to name a few. Though the temptation is always strong to claim a unique status for our God-bearer, it appears other traditions have also been blessed with bearers of the divine or Jesus-types. When I have mentioned the possibility of other Jesus-types, I’ve encountered resistance from some Christians who believed our faith in Jesus required us to dismiss the possibility that God might have equipped others to bear the Divine Presence as Jesus had. However, the value of Jesus did not lay in his uniqueness, but in his devotion, compassion, and wisdom. The notion that God might have considered Jesus worth replicating should not threaten us. Rather, we should fervently hope God would call others to embody the Divine Presence as richly as Jesus did. Our world needs more God-bearers, not fewer.

*These questions are culled from a wide variety of books including, Saving Jesus from the Church by Robin Meyers; A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong; Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren; The Evolution of Faith and If the Church Were Christian by Philip Gulley


Charlene said...

I'm wondering if you've also considered the difference between "worship" and "spirituality" that Tom Brown makes. I think he talks about it in his book Awakening Spirits.

I personally find that "worship" doesn't do much for me, but spirituality is a different story.

Lynn Schlosser said...

I'm not familiar with Tom Brown. I actually think it's an interesting thought to contrast worship and spirituality. I've seen spirituality and religion contrasted often. Is worship perhaps a communal experience of spirituality?

At this point in time worship for me feels like one of those Chinese puzzle boxes. There's a way to open the box, but it isn't easy and takes a lot of puzzling over. I'm not ready to give up on worship, because I intuitively sense there's something wonderful there. But I haven't figured out how to open up the experience in the kind of meaningful way I long for.

Sheri Ellwood said...

It's been a long time since I read Tom Brown but I do think that worship as in sacrifice of praise makes little sense. At its best worship can open us to the possibility of God, open us to hope and fuel our acts of service. The problem is church has become nothing but worship punctuated by occasional acts of service when it should be the other way around.