If we are part of a shrinking church membership, at some point we will get booted out into the world. So, from one point of view, why wait for the doors to hit you on the way out? Why not reinvent the church in the very centres of our communities? At least we will get to meet a lot of new people who are not going to darken our church doors. However, such a shift requires a new theological frame for ministry, a sense of adventure, and support and training for adventure travel. We could think of it as Christ leading us in a new dance for becoming fully alive.
Forty minutes up the road from us an Anglican church just announced its closing. The local newspaper featured the dozen or so remaining members with a notation that the building was being deconsecrated and sold because of dwindling membership. Twelve members is twice the size of our church. But we consider ourselves vibrant; we have relocated from a building-centred church to a community-based model. We are, among other things, a kind of pop-up church, as services are once or twice a month and advertised on the community Facebook page, via e-mail and word of mouth. Worship locations rotate throughout the community, often meeting in the local end-of-life care facility.
A church member concerned about the refugee situation, invited community members to engage the issue. The community jumped on the project and took it over, establishing a community committee that took care of everything needed for a successful placement and living situation, and raising about $60,000. The church advanced $5,000 and arranged for United Church sponsorship. With money left over, the community repaid the church for its advance of funds. The placement became one of the most meaningful events in the life of the community. Our tiny church just dropped a seed. It wasn’t too heavy to carry or plant; we didn’t tend it all by ourselves. We participated. But what arose came out of the centre of the community.
Richard Rohr quotes G.K. Chesterton’s observation: “Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of.”
The Christian community’s need to reframe what church is reminds me of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the world’s sacred connection to God. The Romans destroyed the Temple and herded Temple priests to a community where they couldn’t make trouble. Faced with this enormous spiritual dilemma, the Mishnah tells the story of one devout Jew who tore his clothes and wailed at the loss of the Temple, saying, “How will we make atonement?” The Rabbi walking with him said in effect, we will make atonement through acts of loving kindness – a quintessential theological and practical reframing of ministry.ow hh
What Christian theological reframing is needed today? Both Richard Rohr and Dianna Butler Bass offer us guidance. For Richard Rohr, we have conflated the notion of Christ with Jesus, making Christ into Jesus’ last name. But Christ is in everything and everyone. For Dianna Butler Bass, there is no difference between the sacred and the profane – God and Christ are in all. Rohr suggests:
Right now, perhaps more than ever, we need a God as big as the still expanding universe, or educated people will continue to think of God as a mere add-on to a world that is already awesome, beautiful, and worthy of praise in itself. If Jesus is not also presented as Christ, I predict more and more people will not so much actively rebel against Christianity as just gradually lose interest in it. Many research scientists, biologists, and social workers have honored the Christ Mystery without needing any specific Jesus language at all.
The implication is that we do not need to take Christ out into the community, as Christ is in all and already there. Rohr suggests that “the whole of creation – not just Jesus – is the beloved community.” For him, “Christ is a good and simple metaphor for absolute wholeness, complete incarnation, and the integrity of creation.”
When over a hundred residents of New Denver, B.C., gathered to welcome the refugee family from Somalia, I experienced the beloved community of which Rohr writes.
Our entire notion of “outreach” needs to be reconsidered in light of these theological understandings. We really can leave the building behind and meet the Christ in our neighbor. Because everything is sacred, the church holds no more special place of honor with God than anywhere else. “The essential function of religion,” Rohr says, “is to radically connect us with everything. It is to help us see the world and ourselves in wholeness, and not just in parts.” To be religious then is to place ourselves in the heart of our communities from which Good News will arise. If your head hurts thinking about this, take a break and check out the music video by Birdtalker entitled “One” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Odlw8WdsZS8
So, how do we move church to the heart of the community? Through the dance of experimentation. The authors of Weird Church give us a great starting point through one of their stories about church. Broadway Church in Indianapolis, they write, redefined what it meant to serve its surrounding community. The Broadway Church stopped all its outreach programs and hired a “roving listener,” to rove the neighborhood listening, noticing and attempting to better understand the gifts, passions, hopes and dreams of the church’s neighborhood. They moved from caregiving to a community organizing practice. Analogous ways of being in community were recently explored at the Inhabit Conference in Seattle.
On the Recombinant Church Consulting website, check out the Chronological History of the social justice ministry know as Convergence Writers’ Weekend. As the first couple of pages of the Chronology detail, this project grew up from the community. No organizational form: just passion, networking and commitment. Spirituality was acknowledged as a vital part of the project, and one of the founding network partners is Turner Zion Pastoral Charge of The United Church of Canada. This year, Convergence Writers’ Weekend features the noted Japanese-Canadian author Joy Kogawa addressing the topic “Writing Toward Forgiveness.” Funding for Writing Toward Forgiveness was made possible by the Mir Centre for Peace, two area directors of the Regional District of the Central Kootenays (a regional government body), and the Columbia Basin Trust. No funds were requested of The United Church. All grants were processed through another network partner, Slocan Solutions, which has a mandate to help local projects such as Convergence. Locating ministry in the heart of the community makes possible these natural collaborations.
May we all dance together on the knife edge of uncertainty with courage and joy. Let us know about the new dance steps you are creating with your community.