RECLAIMING CHURCH


How many of us have seen or participated in placing a hand on the wall of the sanctuary and then saying, “This is not the church.” With this act, we are trying to illustrate that it is the people of our faith community who are the church and not the building. Do we have any idea what we just said? If the building is not the church, why do we spend so much time and effort dealing with it? If the building is not the church, why is it so important to us? After we have said, “This is not the church,” have we ever taken a far look in the direction we just pointed? What happens when we extend that thought?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

NRSV Matthew 6:19-21

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

NRSV Matthew 6:24

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?  Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.  He said to him, Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.  Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.  When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

NRSV Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 18:18-23

What do capital campaigns and 6- or 7- or 8-digit mortgages (or any mortgage amount) and sanctuaries with high vaulted ceilings and proper acoustic resonance and stained glass windows and basketball courts and dining halls and sculpted altars and carved pulpits and custom-built communion tables and decorative carpet and imported floor tiles and plentiful paved parking lots and meticulously manicured gardens have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do fund raisers and all the accompanying effort and bother and time and finding and organizing the required workers have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do praise bands and church orchestras and bell choirs and octaves of tuned bells and multi-rank pipe organs and grand pianos and synthesizers and adult choirs and children choirs and choir auditions and choir robes and music folders and the search and review and selection analysis and purchase of new music and multi-line PA systems and multi-screen video systems and live broadcasts and recorded broadcasts and hours of rehearsal time and church bulletins and church bulletin art work and church bulletin paper and designer fonts and newsletters and mailing lists and advertising and advertising placement and multi-media web sites and visits by unique IP addresses and the use of and the presence on new media have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do membership drives and attendance numbers and baptism numbers and tithing and bequeaths and endowments and liturgical employees and non-liturgical employees and salaries and benefits and committees and committee meetings and church boards and church board meetings and the consequential and unavoidable church politics have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

Much of what we call successful Christianity and successful worship and successful congregations has nothing to do with living and sharing the Good News.

Once we begin to think of our faith in terms of largeness instead of largess or in terms of measurable success or significant achievements or community stature or statistically significant gains or business models or congregational models or appropriate budget processes or cash flow direction or generally accepted accounting practices or independent audits or administrative requirements or managerial transparency or proper leadership roles and boundaries or membership trends or effective organizational structures or a current and accurate vision statement – at that point, we have become the money changers – we have lost our faith and deserve to be driven away for we are neither living nor sharing the Good News.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying,

Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?  But you have made it a den of robbers.

NRSV Mark11:15-17, Matthew 21:12-13, Luke 19:45-46

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves,

Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!

NRSV John 2:13-16

What would happen if the church universal – every congregational property, every regional office, every national office, every seminary, every camp – was sold and the net proceeds were used to establish a trust fund endowment to support nutritional, medical, legal, and educational services for the poor, the lost, and the hurt?

When you want a new status quo – a status quo different than the current status quo – you are asking for revolution. When you desire radical transformation – you are asking for revolution. When you are tired of capital campaigns for more structural imagery; nauseated by controversy over who is fit to be a church member, deacon, or elder; repulsed by the aggregation and protection of authority that defines narrow rigid paths to ordination; grievously hurt by the abandonment and refusal to acknowledge congregations who dare to be excited by their proclaiming and living the Good News; or sick of choosing better organization over better outreach – you are asking for revolution.

“Doing” has to be the new definition of faith. A “new definition” will not be statements of purpose/mission/vision or political participation or public stances on issues or styles of worship. It will be specific activities; specific ways of living that are the new definition. Participating in CODA or LifeLine or Habitat for Humanity will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do and definitive of who we are. Supporting a free clinic or a food pantry or a shelter for the homeless will not be the focus of an annual fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological and spiritual DNA. Worship will not be every Sunday morning – it will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gathered to live, study, and contemplate the Good News. Indeed, “doing” will be about living and being the Good News, not scheduling it as a repetitive activity on our digital calendar on the same day at the same time that always occurs at the same location and always follows the same sequence. “Doing” our faith does not require capital campaigns; local, regional, or national governing boards; seminaries; or licensing/ordination policies.

“Doing” our faith has to be seen as a radical, counter-cultural, defiant way of living. By its very nature, our faith is not supposed to be institutionalized and not measured by largeness, cultural pervasiveness, or authoritarianism. Our faith is supposed to be personal and divinely humane. Our faithful doing is to be delivered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invisible faceless remote committee or collective. “Doing” our faith can be accomplished only with more personal involvement and not with more technology that is better, more pervasive, more invasive, and increasingly remote and detached.

Congregations should be small groups meeting for worship in the homes of different members. Just imagine: Church with no offerings, no church governing boards and no board meetings, no committees and no committee meetings, no rehearsals, no fund raisers, no capital campaigns, no finances, no buildings, no property, no maintenance or repairs or replacements, no employees, no membership drives. Just imagine: Church as only worship, only studying, only witnessing in word and service to each other and the world.

by Doug Sloan

Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Terre Haute, Indiana where he has served as an Elder and Treasurer and currently enjoys being a member of the choir. He graduated in 1997 with a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University and a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University in 2009. Since Fall 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has had articles published in DisciplesWorldand Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. Doug is married to Carol, a First Grade teacher, and is the father of two sons.
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About Doug Sloan

Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 4950 East Wabash Avenue, P.O. Box 3125, Terre Haute, IN 47803-0125 (812-877-9959). Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an open and affirming congregation. Doug is an Elder, has served as Treasurer, enjoys his continuing membership in the choir as the lowest voiced bass and currently is serving as an At-Large member of the Regional Board of the Indiana Disciples of Christ. As a member of the O&A Elders group, he helped write a resolution to change the ordination policy of the Indiana Region. The resolution will be presented at the 2012 Indiana Regional Assembly. He graduated in 2009 with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University and a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University in 1997. Since August 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has been published in DisciplesWorld and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. In the summer of 2010, Doug became a contributor to this blog: [D]mergent.org

22 thoughts on “RECLAIMING CHURCH

  1. I was particularly captivated by your final paragraph. I have been meaning to write a post on this, but was unsure if my church was an “emergent church” or not.

    “Congregations should be small groups meeting for worship in the homes of different members. Just imagine: Church with no offerings, no church governing boards and no board meetings, no committees and no committee meetings, no rehearsals, no fund raisers, no capital campaigns, no finances, no buildings, no property, no maintenance or repairs or replacements, no employees, no membership drives. Just imagine: Church as only worship, only studying, only witnessing in word and service to each other and the world.”

    The church I attend has been meeting approximately 17 years. We are an intentional home church and own no building. We are associated with the CC(DOC) but do not limit our outreach to their projects or our study to their programs. We meet twice a month, in each other’s homes with rotating leadership, for fellowship (some necessary business like what our next mission project is), study and worship. We have offerings which go 100% to mission projects like “Midwives for Haiti” and do hands on service projects once a month, like building shelves at a homeless shelter’s kitchen or making hygeine kits for CWS. Our adult members range in age from 30 to 77 with the majority of them in their 50’s. We have about 16 regular members, but with extended church family swell to 24 at our annual Christmas gathering. Our worship is in our study, our discussion, our outreach and a brief sharing of joys and concerns and communion. We are currently studying racism. We are an O&A congregation. Are we the emergent church?

    Sherrill M. Morris
    Fireside Christian Church
    An Intentional Home Church of Metro Denver

    • Sherrill,
      I concur with Doug. If we worry about labeling faith communities as emergent or emerging we miss the movement and may fall into institution.

      There will be more written on “emerging” here and it is my hope that we may grow to recognize the Spirit moving among us as it carries us outward in to the world to be the Body of Christ to all, which is what I have understood “emerging” to be.

      Blessings and peace on your journey.

      Ryan

  2. As a member of the long-suffering “elevator committee” at my big old church, this post is especially poignant. I loathe that we as a congregation (not unlike most other congregations around the globe) spend so much time and energy and resources on the physical plant; meanwhile spending a similar amount of energy trying to figure out how to walk the line between serving the Kingdom and serving the walls and ceilings and gutters.

    I don’t know if I’m radical enough to abandon the building altogether just yet, but I’ve grown to appreciate the people who gather to “do church” without stained glass or pipe organs or even powerpoint presentations.

  3. Hi, Doug – great post which I am still trying to absorb in total.

    Your final paragraph appears to be a nice description of “Heaven on Earth”, both for what you ask us to imagine doing without (especially those board meetings:) and what you describe as Church.

    Thanks!

    John

  4. Hi Doug-

    What a great post indeed. I have also had these thoughts especially when it comes to TV
    ministries. There is one preacher named Murdock and every single time I see him on, he is
    trying to get the poor people watching to plant a seed. In essence, he is living off the people which is not what the gospel teaches – at all. There is also a selfishness in people today. I believe it is a lack of understanding of what we are supposed to be doing for the poor as Christians, that permiates the general population. The Government has pushed this duty off on Churches when it is impossible for them to do. I am a retired Social Worker so I know about what I speak. I agree with what you said in your artical and if it were possible whould pat you on the back for having the courage to put it in writing. Not many people will stand up for what is right. They continue to follow the status quo and contribute to those who continue to contribute to themselves….Bravo Doug!!

  5. A beautifully voiced call to action that has the air of prophesy about it. I share your frustration about the various guises of the church today and their amazingly obvious foibles. I think we need more radical thinking, so I don’t want to stand in the way.

    But let’s be cautious about calls for revolution–more a modern concept than a biblical one. Putting the Kingdom in total and radical antithesis to all institutionalization can be a bracing message, but it misses the finesse inherent in theological accounts of how church and world relate. The church may experiment with the house church model, but it must continue to risk shaping institutions that enact the Gospel in a powerful way. It is risk, because all power tragically corrupts. But the answer is not a fastidious “purity” from institutions–including fundraising, planning, structures, labels, education, and let’s not forget, tradition. Such purity smacks to me of a dangerous Pharisaism. Nor is it especially Christian–eschewing labels is the stock in trade of any alternative musician, for instance. Good protestants–following established tradition–ought to build institutions with the kind of constant vigilance you represent towards corruption.

    But to renounce the tragic risk of institutionalization means that the church will be more concerned about holding itself aloof from corruption than getting its hands dirty in combatting the powers and principalities of the world, and maybe even cooperating with them on occasion. Reinhold Niebuhr is the classic challenger here.

  6. Prophets tend to be incredibly impractical. They do not advocate a long-term 12-step plan so that people can comfortably move from one comfortable position to another comfortable position. They do not predict hopes and perils of the future as much as they proclaim the dangers of the present that are pulling the people of God away from God. Prophets demand drastic difficult change now. The biggest flaw of prophets is they seem to have almost a sense of pride in being outrageously shocking in their proclamations and annoyingly obstinate in their demands. Both prophets and prophecies tend to be messy – both in presentation and consequences.

    We have got church wrong. The problem is not in public perception or worship styles or worship schedules or open-and-affirming statements or handicap accessibility. The problem is that the church is an institution. Institutionalism is a form of empire – to which the Good News is defiantly oppositional. When we have a preponderance of our time, talent, and treasure devoted to the institution of church instead of the Good News of the church, we have got church wrong. The church as institution is wrong. The only way church gets fixed is by eliminating the institution and leaving only the Good News.

    • The earliest Church, Jesus and the twelve, had an infrastructure. That morphed into the disbursed Church still under the nominal leadership of James and the Jerusalem Council, and so on and so on. The Church has always had some degree of infrastructure. The earliest Church met in synagogues and at the Temple. The Church has always made use of institutional structures. That infrastructure taught, empowered and drove the growth and spread of the church and its membership. Those structures served to draw together the faithful and to signal to them and to the world that Holy Places mattered to God.

      And yet that same infrastructure and those same structures have been sources of failure and corruption.

      It seems to me the message from this is not that we should abandon infrastructure and dedicated buildings, but that we should employ them wisely, and vigilantly protect them from corruption and abuse.

      The role of the prophet is to observe, interpret, and proclaim the signs of corruption and the signs of the Holy.

      • An “underground” infrastructure of hospitality and generosity is different than a corporate or institutional infrastructure. As the beginning church moved from a flexible infrastructure of hospitality and generosity provided by individuals and communities to a ridgid infrastructure of creeds and orthodoxy provided and enforced by the church as an institution, the beginning church veered further and further from the Good News message.

  7. I may have this completely wrong, but I have to ask: How can a house church, especially one which rotates from home to home, be open and affirming when it is by nature a “by invitation only” gathering?

  8. John, you are talking about two different things. Open and Affirming is a designation that says you welcome the LGBT community in all aspects of church life and leadership. I don’t know where you got the idea that we are in “by invitation only” gathering, we publish the dates and address of our next meetings on our website a nd there is a phone number on the website if you need help with directions. So, we are not “by invitation only” and we are open and affirming. Do you need any more clarification? GLAD (Gay Lesbian and Affirming Disciples) is the umbrella organization that grants churches O&A status. YOu can find more on the GLAD alliance website. Let me know if you need more info.

    Sherrill

  9. Sherrill,

    You have a website that advertises your church! Now it makes sense to me how you can be open and affirming, and not ‘by invitation only’.

    I wish you all success.

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  12. Interesting comments, particularly as I am home today wondering if my pledge to the church is a good use of my money. I belong to a smallish graying church in a smallish graying state. Our church membership is declining, and so is school enrollment in our town. I spent the morning preparing a free lunch. Our church joined other churches in filling in as the Catholic church that does the lunch seven days a week the rest of the year takes the month of July off. The lunch is served in a Methodist church. Another Catholic church, two Congregational Churches, and even a local hospital have taken turns buying food and preparing a lunch. Members of my church also participate in an Evening Sandwich program in the Unitarian-Universalist church basement. Our spaces are being under-utilized, perhaps, but they are being utilized.

    I’m not sure who the prophet referred to above is. Is Doug referring to himself as a prophet?

    As someone who left the church, attending only sporadically for probably 20 years, and now have been back for around 15 years, I have to say I have been grateful for those who have done the work of the church in my absence. They served food after my mother’s funeral. They make church weddings possible. They have served countless baked bean suppers to the hungry, whether those hungry were poor or not.

    I think being an institution is inevitable if you’re around for awhile. I think you must be watchful to make sure your work is not principally to maintain your institution at great cost.

    It’s hard to know what we need to do. I think my church does some things very well, and some things not so well. (I think I do some things well, and many things not so well!)

    Thanks so much for this interesting discussion! I’m glad I stumbled upon it!

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  14. Dear Doug

    I fear you are heading into the same “apostasy” as that of Chip Brogden and that some committee may soon feel similarly obligated to show you the error of your ways.

    Of course I say this tongue-in-cheek. 🙂

    Please read his story in his free ebook “Getting Babylon out of you” at http://theschoolofchrist.org/read/ebooks (requires registration).

    You might also enjoy seeing what God is doing elsewhere in this video: http://www.site.house2house.com/about-us/welcome .

    You may also enjoy http://www.christinyou.net/pdfs/Christiantynotrel.pdf (very detailed and advanced, for mature Christians).

    May your enemies’ curses turn into blessings

    Yours in Christ

    David Paul
    Everlasting Good News Ministries
    http://www.egnm.net
    “God is calling us all to become religiously passive, and spiritually active instead”

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