Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching at a three-church worship gathering in Moundridge, Kansas. What follows is my sermon, a synthesis of a number of my more recent blog posts.
The Bergthal Mennonite Church stands on a windy corner in the country, a beloved landmark that orients and directs people on their journeys, both literal and figurative. The congregation was established in 1875, though the present brick building was completed in 1915. In its prime, members spilled out of the large worship space and into the overflow. I would have loved to visit Bergthal, say, in the 1940’s, and just be a witness to this vibrance our elder members still recall. Membership and attendance decline began in the 1950’s. A church split is not part of our story, rather the unrelenting erosion of our rural population and the general societal decline of mainline Protestant adherents exacted a brutal toll. Today we feel good when our numbers on a Sunday morning exceed 15. This Memorial Day weekend we will invite everyone to come help us celebrate Bergthal’s rich and good and long life. Next summer, we will close our doors. Shortly thereafter, we intend to raze our building. After spending two years in discernment and prayer, we’ve decided our building deserves a proper and respectful burial rather than allowing time and the elements to have their way.
Needless to say, over the past number of years, I have done quite a lot of reading, reflecting and writing about the decline of the mainstream church in North America. But running parallel to this tale of decline, a new story has been taking shape in our midst. As a congregation slips below that intangible line of critical mass, it starts to encounter a pace of change that hits hard and fast. As the base dissolves, it’s difficult to find a new normal, because time won’t stand still long enough to gain a good foothold.
When my husband and I moved to Kansas in May of 2002, we settled into the parsonage in the little town of Pawnee Rock and began co-pastoring, sharing equally a full-time position. By 2007, congregational finances were strained, and so with the congregation’s blessing, Todd and I moved an hour east to a little acreage near my hometown. We reduced the pastoral position to 60% time. Todd found other employment and Bergthal adjusted to a part-time pastor who no longer lived in the community. Later in 2007, the parsonage was sold. At about the same time, we moved out of our sanctuary, and set up the overflow space to make a more intimate place of worship. Shortly thereafter, we completely reworked our constitution so as to craft a document that reflected who we were in the present and not the congregation we were 50 years previous. Over the last few years, two adult Sunday School classes became one and now Sunday School is a sporadic event. Church council has been dissolved in exchange for monthly congregational meetings before worship each third Sunday of the month. We’ve begun experimenting with worship, trying out all sorts of ideas that feel better suited to a group our size.
Change is usually very difficult for congregations. I’m proud of our little group for the ways in which we’ve weathered and even embraced change. But here’s what’s been so interesting. In my tenure, we’ve covered the ideological spectrum - liberal to conservative. But there was an underlying understanding in place well before my time, that we’re all in this together. That what we have in common far outweighs our differences. That we had and have a choice. We can, as the saying goes, “stand together or die alone.” So with that commitment to one another firmly in place, the Bergthal congregation has been a safe place for people to ask questions of one another. To dialogue on tough issues. Not only did this help prepare us for the onslaught of change, it also seems to have emboldened people to re-evaluate their understandings of church - what church is - what church should be - what church could be. And so I’ve been sent by my congregation on another journey as well. To foray out into the existing literature and the ongoing conversation about where the church is headed and to report back on what I find.
Of course, all congregations have a life cycle. A time to be born and a time to die. With that said, walking with each other towards our congregational death has been an emotional and grief stricken process. How wonderful it has been then to simultaneously look for resurrection in the midst of death and to receive glimpses of the emerging church as good news, as gospel. So I come today eager to share some of this good news with each of you.
But in order to speak about the future, I must first take us back into the past. Because the church of the future has selected her dancing partner and that partner seems to be the church of the past, or what we refer to today as, “the early church.”
I’m going to get to the early church in a bit, but first I want stop on the journey back in time at the year 325. For the sake of time, I’m going to paint here in bold black and white strokes, but I want to acknowledge the story is more complicated and nuanced than I am able to treat it this morning. With that said, in the year 325 the church took a rather dramatic 90 degree turn in the road. Most church historians would note the early 300s as the end of the early church period. So what happened?
In 306 the Roman Emperor, Constantine ascended the throne and soon found himself sympathetic to the young Christian movement. In 313 he ended the persecution of Christians and around the same time, declared himself Christian. Constantine and the emperors that followed him, gradually ushered Christianity in as the official state religion, taking this upstart religious movement from persecuted to powerful. At the same time, other religious movements and pagan groups began to be squashed. It’s also important to note that up to this point, there were many different Christian streams of thought. It was not a unified theological movement by any means. And many, if not most, of the divisions had to do with different ways of understanding the nature of Christ. For example, Arians believed God and Jesus were both divine but were separate. Homoiousians felt God and Jesus were one and the same and were eternal (Christianity in the 4th century - wikipedia). Ebionites thought Jesus was a man, albeit a great man.
Constantine believed if Christianity had any hope of eventually serving as the state religion, then there needed to be a set creed of right beliefs, so in 325 he convened the first council of Nicaea. Between 200 and 300 bishops from across the empire attended, representing many of these different streams of thought. Arguments were made, votes were taken and at the end of the day, or however long the council lasted, a new statement of belief was crafted, what we know today as the Nicene Creed - and everyone from that point on who was at odds with the conclusions reached by the council, was declared heretical and in some cases was persecuted by the state.
I’ve read a good number of books about the future church. One of the best has been Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. In this book, published earlier this year, she outlines a paradigm shift that occurred in the church starting around the time of Constantine and continuing to this day. In the church, here’s the order we follow. Believing first, then behaving and finally belonging. When Christianity finally became the state religion in 380, it was what you believed that defined you as a Christian. Some 1200 years after Constantine, when the church ran smack into the Reformation, it was again right belief that led the charge. In the interim Christianity had become an increasingly creedal and dogmatic religion. Interestingly this wasn’t so much the case with the Radical Reformation, but I digress. So fast forward to today and we Christians call ourselves believers. Even the very word, “faith” is used interchangeably with the word “belief”. I have faith Jesus will come again. I believe Jesus will come again. Belonging is not to be assumed. Belonging hinges first on right belief and then on proper behavior that backs up that belief. Instead of belonging being something automatically extended, it is almost up to the individual to prove they have what it takes to belong.
My dad was a high school history teacher. Still today he consumes dry and boring nonfiction historical texts. He says it’s like dessert for the brain and we all roll our eyes at him. However, I must have absorbed some of his respect and appreciation for history by osmosis or something because as I get older I am increasingly keen to reach for the future while simultaneously gripping the past. So it has been a pleasure to discover that those agitating for the future within the present church are doing so with a hand gripped tightly around early church history. I think this anchors the movement in a really crucial way. And one of the interesting things we have learned, as Bass outlines, is that around the time of Constantine the church turned what had been an innate order, on its head. From the time of Jesus for the first several hundred years the church ordered itself first around the priority of belonging and then behavior and finally belief.
Bass uses the example of Jesus to demonstrate this primary order. Jesus began his ministry forming a community. He called out to people to drop everything in order to be a part of his family. It’s interesting to think about those who responded. What prompted them to leave everything they knew behind? I have a hunch that a common denominator for all humanity is a deep desire to belong and in particular, to belong to something larger than ourselves. To find our place in this world. If those earliest disciples intuited this message in Jesus’ invitation to come and follow it must have been irresistible.
With his community formed, an apprenticeship began. The disciples and other followers began to learn by doing. They watched Jesus teach and heal. And in time, Jesus sent them out on their own to test their newly developing skills. Bass writes, “When they returned from this first mission, they could not believe what had happened. They discovered that proclaiming the kingdom was not a matter of teaching doctrine; rather, the kingdom was a matter of imitating Jesus’ action. Jesus did not tell them to have faith. He pushed them into the world to practice faith. The disciples did not hope the world would change. They changed it. And, in doing so, they themselves changed.”
In time, Jesus would ask Peter what he believed. He would ask how living his faith had informed his beliefs about who exactly Jesus was. And Peter would respond with a simple and oh so powerful Confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Belonging - Behavior - Belief.
This was the model used by the early church described in Acts. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (2:43-47).” Some people believe this was simply the earliest expression of the church and lasted for only a few years. Not so. This was a description of the early church for the first few hundred years. Community was at the core. Again, belonging was top priority. And you find in these few verses a description of how this early community lived, how it behaved. This behavior is what attracted people in droves. It was so counter-cultural. Belief came later. Not to say belief wasn’t important. It was. But it was third in line, not first.
A few weeks ago I did a sermon in my church about the Didache. The Didache was an ancient instruction manual for the early church, most likely written around the same time as our earliest gospel, the gospel of Mark. We have almost no surviving written literature about the church from the first century, so this fact alone makes the Didache precious. It was circulated widely in the early church and it’s a bit of a mystery why it didn’t make it into our New Testament canon. I’m guessing that by the time church bishops were trying to figure out what was in and what was out, belief was already topping the priority list and so this little manual seemed a bit irrelevant.
The Didache is all about proper behavior - both ethical and spiritual. Several chapters are spent on the kinds of ethical behaviors one should engage in or avoid. Spiritual practices also get a good amount of attention - things like hospitality, service, stewardship, fasting, prayer. Spiritual practices were an intrinsic part of what it meant to be church. It’s a good little read. You can find several translations online.
So let’s contrast this with church today. I would say we get stuck in belief most of the time. Even our worship is designed to highlight the sermon, a time for the pastor to get up front and talk about what he or she believes. Behavior hovers more on the periphery of church. In the ethical realm we tend to focus our energies on the sins of others and not so much on our own weaknesses. While in the Old and New Testament and the early church one of the greatest sins was economic injustice, in too many of today’s churches, material wealth is actually treated as a reward. Homosexuality and abortion receive the greatest portion of our ethical energies.
And we really only dip our congregational toes into spiritual practices. The pastor or worship leader typically takes care of the prayer piece. We do our private tithing, but don’t talk about it too much. Fasting as a spiritual practice has really gone by the wayside. If we engage in spiritual practices, it’s usually more on an individual basis. But the catch here is that a sense of belonging and behavior are totally tied up together. That amazing sense of belonging is built and nurtured in a community that lives its faith together.
At Bergthal, there is a lot of talk about still finding ways to be community together even after we close our doors. MCC’s (Mennonite Central Committee) school kit project is pretty important to us. A few Sundays ago we packed over 1,000 school kits. So we talk about trying to find ways to still do school kits together. We talk about getting together for potluck meals. We’ve wondered about maybe getting a Bible study group together and/or a group that meets in the evenings to work on different projects. But we’ve been hesitant to call any of this church. Now isn’t that interesting? What we can’t bear to let go of is the belonging and behaving piece of church. But since belief doesn’t take up center stage in our visioning, it doesn‘t resemble our definition of church.
Well, I’ve got news for today’s church. People are tired of spending so much time and energy on belief and are hungry for a sense of belonging that comes wrapped around a lived life of faith. And they are looking elsewhere to have these needs met, exiting the church in record numbers.
The good news is that today’s church can change. We can reclaim our heritage. And in the Mennonite church we perhaps have a head start because we have always placed the example of Jesus’ life front and center. We need to stop trying to accommodate the dominant culture’s idea of church and embrace our own heritage. The future church is arriving on our doorstep even as we speak. Will we find a place for this movement to belong?