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

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Things to look for in the future church (part 2)

A confession:  this series of posts about the church was in preparation for our regional Mennonite Church assembly where I helped offer a presentation about the present and future church.  Every faith tradition has gifts to offer the future church.  And time and time again as I worked my way through different books, I found non-Anabaptist authors lifting up Anabaptists, Quakers, Mennonites and the Amish as relevant examples for the church today. Mennonites would be one of several different Anabaptist streams.  So, these final six characteristics are strengths of the Anabaptist tradition and thus gifts we have to offer the broader Christian church.

 #5. More experiential

“The early Anabaptists testified to a way of life that made a radical difference in the world. This was a path of practical mysticism, of experiential Christianity, of the spirit-infused community.”
- Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion)

We learn from our experiences. Anabaptism began as sort of a grand experiment. Communities formed around the idea that it was possible to live out the ideals Jesus taught. Anabaptism was a counter-Christendom movement that set Jesus, his teachings and his example, front and center. A few beliefs gave shape to these radical communities, but it was the sense of a communal spirit and the accompanying devotion to the practice of one’s faith that really set this fledgling movement apart.

In the last couple years at Bergthal, we’ve been experimenting a lot with what it means to be church. A number of our experiments haven’t panned out, but one that does seem to be resonating is our “Working in Worship” Sundays where we work on school kits within the context of a worship service.
The pace of change keeps getting quicker. I predict that a future model of church will always be an experiential model, fully engaged in questions and practices that continue to breathe new ways of being into the worshipping and working community.

#6. Jesus-centered

“Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of church, and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.”
- 1st of 7 core Anabaptist convictions as outlined in
(The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray)

By the time the 16th century rolled around, the church had become exceedingly corrupt and so some rogue priests broke away in an attempt to create a better model of church. Their efforts came to be known as the Reformation. While the reformers took many steps in the right direction, still, others thought the movement didn’t go nearly far enough. And so a decade or two later, the radical reformation began and the Anabaptist movement was born. This was a movement that took Jesus’ teachings to an extreme level of application, dedicating themselves to doing exactly what Jesus said to do.

Such a radical reading of scripture made people quite uneasy. And in short order, the radical reformers became persecuted martyrs. But that Jesus-centered essence survived and is alive and well today.

The future church will likewise hold Jesus as the “central reference point for faith and lifestyle”. This history of taking seriously Jesus’ life and teachings in the form of discipleship, radical hospitality, commitment to simplicity, humility -this is the heritage Anabaptist traditions need to claim and generously share with those who are genuinely seeking their lead.

#7. Focus on ethics over theology

“After thirty years in the ministry, I can say with real conviction that almost every good thing that happens in a church happens when people move toward God without knowing how anything is going to turn out. And almost everything bad happens when people move away from God because they are afraid. We want peace, of course, but we think that peace means tranquility. We want security, but we think this means that there is some amount of money that represents economic tenure. We want to be “saved,” but continue to understand this as a personal, individual transaction. So it is that we find ourselves lost at home, seeking after something whose essential character we have completely forgotten--namely what a Christian does, not what a Christian believes. We have embraced orthodoxy and forgotten orthopraxy. Our collective sickness is not unlike a form of ecclesiastical Alzheimer’s.”

“In the landscape of Christianity today, we regard the Quakers and Mennonites as quaint appendages to the body of Christ. But in this respect, at least, they are the ones who have it exactly right. Nonviolence is not optional for Christians. It is essential. There will be no recovery of Christianity as a vital and transformative force in the West without a return to our pacifist roots. This is the first and most important characteristic of the Underground Church. It is a principle of origin, a founding characteristic, and the essential recovery of a sacred tradition--as unmistakable and nonnegotiable as it is profoundly subversive.”
- Robin Meyers (The Underground Church)

Robin Meyers (The Underground Church)
When I joined the Mennonite Church following my college graduation, this characteristic perhaps more than any other attracted me to our shared faith. I was taken with the work of Mennonite Central Committee and the dedication of those who regularly volunteered with Mennonite Disaster Service.

This is also a hallmark of people who hold Jesus’ example as central to the living out of faith. It is an example of behaving receiving more emphasis than believing. Our historical Anabaptist priority on ethics informed our theology, rather than vice versa.

Emerging generations are interested in less talk and more action and this impulse is reverberating and resonating in older generations as well. There is a palpable desire for church to root itself deep in the example of Jesus, quit talking already, roll up its sleeves and get to work. I think this is very good news!
#8. God in community

“An inner truth always has a corresponding outer reality. Our interdependence is woven through the fabric of the universe. The painful, fearful, wonderful message of the modern world is that we are members one of the other, and that we cannot live if we are not in communion with each other. The world, even for the hard of learning, is turning out to be one great household--every woman, my sister; every man, my brother.”
- Elizabeth O’Connor (The New Community)

I was in seminary when one of my instructors called attention to the ways in which church architecture mirrored theology. Soaring cathedrals, elevated roof lines, steeples, all give voice to a vertical relationship with God. One story, lower ceiling churches put the emphasis on the horizontal nature of God in community. Mennonite church buildings are typically more simple affairs built with a horizontal/communal mindset.
It is our adoration of community that has elevated potluck meals to the level of a church sacrament in many Mennonite churches. It is community which has fostered our commitment to mutual aid. And though the Mennonite name game has gotten a perhaps deserved bad rap in the last decade or so, it is that keen sense of community that made the game fun to play. Where we have fallen short has been in welcoming others to become full fledged members of our community, no matter their background. But this is a weakness we have become uncomfortably aware of and have thus been working diligently at for the last generation.

In one of his books, Philip Gulley calls attention to a quote by Sikh artist, K.P. Singh. “If we cannot see God in all, we cannot see God at all.” That could maybe serve as one of several different mottoes for the future church. The understanding and desire to discover God in our relationships with each other.

#9. Less professional, more lay led

“Christianity understood as a system of beliefs guarded and transmitted through a privileged religious institution by a clerical class is dying. Instead, today Christianity as a way of life shared in a vast variety of ways by a diverse global network of fellowships is arising. The initial fruits of this resurrection are already obvious. In those countries where the clerical leadership clings to the older model, the churches are empty. Any visitor to Europe can witness these vacant pews at first hand. But in those areas of the world where creeds and hierarchies have been set aside to make way for the Spirit, like the stone rolled away from Christ’s grave in the Easter story, one senses life and energy.”
- Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith)

The final two characteristics are very much indicative of a post-modern mindset. A shift to post modernism, among other things, means a flattening of former hierarchies. So what we are witnessing and will continue to see is a greater emphasis on lay leadership accompanied by a decreasing priority on the professional pastor.

While Martin Luther is credited with the idea of “a priesthood of all believers”, the early Anabaptists seized hold of this idea and still today it is one of our cherished theological principles. While in later Anabaptism, a clergy class did emerge, even then, church leaders were lay pastors. In our own Mennonite history, many of us are familiar with stories about pastors chosen from within the congregation by “the lot”.

This is not to say seminary education isn’t valuable. It is. But rather that in the future church, this education might be increasingly accessible to more of the congregation and the pastor’s role may increasingly be reduced to part-time or even divided up and filled by gifted and trained volunteers from within the congregation.

#10. Networking house church communities

“The ways that emergent Christians gather in communities have a lot in common with the traits of scale-free networks, open-source software, and wikis…Wikipedia is extraordinarily successful and popular. With millions of visitors each day, Wikipedia often ranks in the top ten most trafficked Internet sites. One can look at the qualities of Wikipedia and analogize them to many other scale-free networks, including the emergent church. Six characteristics of Wikipedia can shed additional light on what emergent Christianity is--especially at the church level--and how it operates: open access, trust, mutual accountability, agility, connectivity and messiness.”
- Tony Jones (The New Christians)

Maybe more than any other development in the modern world, technology is re-shaping how we understand ourselves, our relationships with each other, how we view reality. Up to this point, the church has largely contented itself with more superficial forays into the land of technology - power points, big screen projectors, websites and maybe facebook pages. This is only the beginning. Marching hand in hand with technology is a new understanding and acceptance of the pace of change. The future of the church lies in its ability to be nimble and adaptable, always in flux, open and alert to the ways in which the Spirit is moving.
Anabaptism was also a nimble and always adapting stream of interconnected communities. Persecution kept the life of the church in a constant state of upheaval. And, as Stuart Murray points out, “Anabaptists also made use of emerging technology (printing rather than the internet) to disseminate their ideas and connect with each other (The Naked Anabaptist).”

Smaller and more intimate communities tend to be lighter on their feet. So when I look into my crystal ball, I see vibrant house church gatherings dotting the landscape, but networked with one another, not only locally, but globally as well. These little niche fellowships will offer their own unique gifts to the greater networked whole while at the same time recognizing their need to receive and learn from other fellowships, both near and faraway. In this way, I suspect interdenominational and maybe even interfaith connections will be made which will in time, erode these human-made divisions.


“If the church were Christian, Jesus would be a model for living, rather than an object of worship. Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness. Reconciliation would be valued over judgment. Gracious behavior would be more important than right belief. Inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers. Encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity. Meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions. Peace would be more important than power. We would care more about love and less about sex. This life would be more important than the afterlife.”
- Philip Gulley (If the Church Were Christian)


For those interested in further reading on the topic of the present and future church, I've printed a list of resources below:
Armstrong, Karen; The Spiral Staircase (2004)
Bass, Diana Butler; Christianity After Religion (2012)
Bell, Rob; Love Wins (2011)
Brock, Rita and Rebecca Parker; Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for  
      Crucifixion and Empire (2008)
Campolo, Tony and Brian McLaren; Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture- Controlled
      Church Neutered the Gospel (2006)
Campolo, Tony and Shane Clairborne; Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He
      Said (2012)
Cox, Harvey; The Future of Faith (2009)
Crossan, John Dominic; God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (2007)
Douthat, Ross; Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012)
Gulley, Philip
- The Evolution of Faith (2011)
- If the Church Were Christian (2010)
Jones, Tony; The New Christians (2008)
Kinnaman, David; Unchristian (2007)
McLaren, Brian
- Everything Must Change (2007)
- Finding Our Way Again (2008)
- A Search for What Makes Sense (2007)
Meyers, Robin
- Saving Jesus from the Church (2009)
- The Underground Church (2012)
Murray, Stuart; The Naked Anabaptist (2010)
Snyder, C. Arnold; Anabaptist History and Theology (1995)
Spong, John Shelby
- A New Christianity for a New World (2001)
- Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998)
Taylor, Barbara Brown; Leaving Church (2006)
Webb, Valerie; In Defense of Doubt (1995)
Wright, N.T.; Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (2010)
Wright, N.T.; Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church

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