Let It Die

There are many many much better posts out here on Dmergent on the hopes & dreams & futures we all imagine for Christian community. I thought it was time to contribute my meager Pensees:

There isn’t much that disturbs me about the church emerging into the future. I’m not an optimistic person, just someone who’s excited about the future, as scary and uncertain as it might be. I do see some significant elements that will disturb many, but are inevitably definitive for the future. It is the most prevalent element that may be the most disturbing- the amount of death of traditional church structures and community that will occur over the years. While others may fear this, I for one welcome it.

My first vision of this as a newly-minted Disciple took place at the CCDOC General Assembly last July. Most discussions, in both the formal sessions and informal gatherings, had much to do with existing ecclesial structures within existing communities (buildings, salaries, budgets, and memberships) and institutions (Regions, national departments, offices and boards), and also with maintaining a status quo for these things that just don’t matter anymore and that won’t survive. Two-thirds of these structured Disciples faith communities are in official decline, and will most likely close any doors they might still have over the next few decades. Any resources they might have will dissolve into an insular abyss, that will only benefit a few “members” and career “ministers”. The larger institutions will also decline, close, and realign, because there will be insufficient funding for and a diminished interest in supporting them. Lots of death here, that I welcome, because all this stuff has nothing to do with what the church is, and what it will be, in the future.

This was an underlying and subversive conversation that also took place last July, welcoming such death, especially among people connected to new church plants, and communities full of and focused on younger people (40 and younger). Previous generations of Christians have benefitted greatly from all this institutional and financial largesse. Good for them. What they have failed to do is to create structures that will last, and that will be beneficial, sustainable, or meaningful to these future generations. Younger and future generations are not interested in financially supporting such crumbling buildings and bloated pension plans, because this largesse has nothing to do with their faith journeys. So they won’t support them. It’s very clear that they aren’t, and so all these unnecessary things to their faith journeys will die. “Maybe that’s what we’ll need” was a big theme in these other discussions, “to just Let It Die.”

I think that this may be the best thing that can happen to the church right now, all this death. If we claim to be Christian, then we must welcome Death when it inevitably arrives. We know from experience that such Death will lead to New Life (well, at least we are supposed to know this…l). After such Death come the New Things of God, that are wonderful to behold! Can you not see them where you stand? I can, but that’s mainly because I’m not standing anywhere near nor within any of those places most people identify as churches. I stand within Open Hearts Gathering, a new Disciples community in Gastonia, NC, a church with no building, membership, weekly Sunday meetings, or salaries. A church that’s not made up even of just Christians! I stand near the Barnes & Noble Cafe counter, where I make some of my meager wages, where thousands of people gather each week, with the people that matter most to them, as little churches dotted across the room. I stand with people of different faiths, different sexualities, different ideas of what Christianity and communities of faith are, should be, and can be about. Nowhere near a traditional church building, let alone the communities that gather within them. And this, too, is the church, the church that will survive within these New Things God creates after so much Death. Let It Die, because will be exciting to see What’s Next.

A recent article in The Christian Century alludes to my own observations. Adam Copeland, in his article “No Need For Church”, describes what he’s discovered in his work with young adults. Most young adults will just not get involved in traditional church structures anymore, no matter how much these traditional structures try to adapt and attract them. He states that what needs to be created “is not church in the traditional sense of the word, but a ministry of the church. Just as many congregations support demographic-based ministries like campus ministry, homeless ministry and addiction ministry, so we now need to support ministry to emerging adults.”

I think we need to go even further than this, and recognize that church in the traditional sense will die, because it doesn’t any meaning for today’s young people. It’s not that young people and future generations are not Christian. Neither is this a great grand rejection of Christian community. It is that the church that Adam thinks needs to go to them is already there. There is actually no need for the church of previous generations, but certainly a need for the church of the next century, which has literally “left the building”, and taken root elsewhere. The traditional church buildings and structures are now great places to visit, but young people and future generations don’t want to will not live there. They don’t need to be a meager ministry within the shell of the old community. Church exists somewhere else for them, and their faith communities may not extend much beyond the dining room table, or local park, school, mall or cafe. So there’s just no reason for them to extend into a building with which they have no relationship in their daily lives. The traditional church that does not recognize this, honor it, and deliberately leave their own building, too, in order to be a part of it, well, that’s the Death I welcome. Let It Die.

Another recent article in The Lutheran reflects this new reality as well. “Insiders and Outsiders: To Embrace Relevance, Mainline Churches Need to Let Go of Survival”, by Bishop Mike Rinehart of the ELCA Texas/Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod is worth quoting at length:

“Here’s my hunch. Everything for me rises or falls on this bet. I’m putting all my eggs in this basket: The turnaround of mainline churches will happen when we in those churches care as much about those outside the church as we do those inside. To embrace relevance, we will have to let go of survival…..
Why is this happening? Church structures were set up to preserve what exists, not change it. These stable structures work well when society is changing slowly, imperceptibly. If something is working, protect it at all costs. But what if it’s not working? What if the rate of societal change skyrockets and old patterns and structures no longer work?….
What do we do about it? Change. Adapt. The church has adapted, survived and even thrived in times of tectonic change in the past. It can again….
So here’s the plan. New policy. Every decision made by staff, council and committees is made on behalf of those not yet here. Every sermon choice, every hymn or song choice, every building and grounds choice, every spending choice is made with outsiders in mind.
When we become a church for the world, the outsider, when the pain of staying the same (and dying of irrelevance) for those already here exceeds the pain of changing (and sacrificing old ways) for those not yet here, we will be the church for which God incarnate came to this earth and gave his life.”

It’s worth observing initially how many comments this article generated when it was first published in the Synod’s “Connections” newsletter, as this attests to its importance. I’ll simply add two conclusions from my own experiences, and from what I’m struggling to articulate here:
-The traditional church and older Christian generations do have to turn their collective asses around the other way, not to attract younger people to their enterprise, or in the hope of some kind of continued survival. The church needs to do this simply because that’s where the church of younger and future generations already is. The church of all generations can celebrate this future together. But there will a drastic and significant break between the two.
-The traditional church and older Christian generations will not make this turn in any significant way, because, for them, the pain of real change will never exceed the pain of staying the same and dying of irrelevance. From my own 20 years of formal churchwork, I can conclude that older generations care more about maintaining an unsustainable status quo than making sure their or any other structures survive into the future. That will always be collectively more comfortable. There won’t be any substantial “turnaround of mainline churches”. Let It Die.

Yes, it is time for all our boards and committees and councils to refuse insularity, to see the younger church already in the midst of the world, and to see beyond the confines of one nice stately building, on one very quiet street corner. Not to create a new ministry for young adults, as Copeland proposes, but to realize that the incarnate God has left the building, and set up church somewhere else. Sadly, existing communities will remain too obstinate and fearful for Rinehart’s challenges. Sadly, we’ll have to just Let It Die. I look forward to it, because the church will be just fine without all those structures and institutions, that are not the church for most people anymore (and I don’t believe really were in the first place).

Yes, I’ve deliberately worn a very Jeremiah-ish mask here, to tell a tale and paint a picture of a future I perceive. I’m pretty sure just as many people will agree with me as did with Jeremiah! This future will be very disturbing to many. Still, I don’t want to leave the impression that we should just abandon all hope, or all that has come before us. We can’t, because What’s Left of that is just as much the church as What’s Next. My major point is that the What’s Left can no longer assume that What’s Next will fit neatly into the same paradigms and categories, and somehow take over what previous generations constructed as the church. The future of ministry will be definitively different from this, and that is why I am full of hope. I encourage you to be as well. This future church, which is already here, is in a completely different place. If we continue to try to do things according to these current paradigms- focusing on ways to somehow increase membership; adding a more contemporary worship event, sermon series, or Sunday School curriculum; or even developing brand new ministries, attempting to attract young people or any other demographic- we will just be shuffling deckchairs. Do yourself, and your church, a favor, and Let It Die. The New Things to come are just around the corner. You just gotta get outta the building to find them.

Please use whatever metaphor works best- nesting, birthing, planting a new church. Use whatever images of New Life work best. There are so many in the Christian tradition to draw upon- the butterfly, the phoenix, the Empty Tomb!- and help to start a new community. Help what has come before to Let It Die, to let go of that which will not survive, and to also embrace and support the New Things yet to come. This is a big reason I’ve felt God called me into Ordained life in this communion, because we Disciples are very well equipped to do this. Our institutional structures and polity allow for so much potential innovation, for anyone, anywhere to, just, begin, being, community, right where there are, without too much paperwork, or too many hoops to jump through. This project can be embarked upon anywhere, though. Wherever you are, within whatever structures and institutions to which God calls you, if there is even the smallest group of people that can perceive and commit to these New Things of God, then just begin. Within whatever polity and hoops you may have to jump through, if any, then just start. I think you’ll be joyfully surprised to see what happens next. Help to pursue God’s New Things right where you are; meet, pray, celebrate, EAT! But be careful, because once you do this, there may not be a specific building that you’re meeting in that people call a church. There may not be a salary or benefit plan for some specific career “minister” that is called and committed to being a part of what you do. Without all these nice comfy paradigms of yesterday, I can still guarantee that you will be in awe of what God will do.

Our jobs as church ministers cannot be to sit comfortably in a nice cushy office anymore, with nice secure benefits for only a few people, in some comfortable sanctuary with lots of things we just can’t sustain anymore. Unless you are ministering, and helping to maintain the church of previous generations- which, again, I don’t disparage, if this is what God has called you to do- then to cling to such things that won’t to survive, that aren’t meant to survive, that are not things God wants or needs to continue (especially because She’s ready to begin something new!) is the worst kind of Atheism I can imagine. God is real, God exists. To keep the status quo going as if God doesn’t exist, as if God won’t be real and present and at the center of What’s Next, indicates a nefarious unbelief in my mind. It’s time to see the church of the present and Let It Die, and embrace the Hope and Joy of the New Things to come.


14 thoughts on “Let It Die

  1. Pingback: We Have Three Years to Figure This Out | knightopia.com | the online home of Steve Knight

  2. Thanks for offering us so much to chew on, Pastor Dennis. The response that follows is offered in love for Christ, His disciples, and for God’s world He called His disciples to bless. I am sincerely interested in your reply. This is filtered through the heart and eyes of a 30-year “career minister” and fifth-generation Disciple of Christ who’s pastoring a “churchy” congregation in a northeast Oklahoma county-seat town with about 110 worshippers that offers a free, hot meal (served on real dishware) to between 100-135 people weekly and that helped 200 families keep their utilities on or a roof over their heads in 2011.
    1. How about church folks drop the word “relevance” and start talking about being “countercultural,” as Gabe Lyons (“The Next Christians”) convincingly suggests?
    2. Christian traditions have been formed, reformed, and passed along for about 2,000 years. What within the new church you’re describing would support faithfully and effectively teaching the “grammar of Christian faith”–so people will learn how to speak about and understand the distinctive Gospel-formed way of encountering life and blessing others? What will the church you’re describing offer to help its members be and act as disciples of Jesus Christ? What within the new church you’re advocating will prevent the members from becoming like the Israelites before the Kings: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes?” (Judges 17:6)? In other words: Will only those within each separate congregation of the new church you see emerging decide on the norms of Christian faith and the distinctive Christian practices?
    3. Even with much formal church structure in place in the past, we know there have been greatly harmful abuses of pastoral power and trust. Without even such accountability structures as these in place, do you believe the new manifestation of church you are advocating will do a better job of holding pastors accountable for their actions? If so, how, please?
    Blessings on your ministry,
    Charles Ragland
    First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
    Claremore, Oklahoma

  3. You might be right. I wish I knew where any of these little gatherings were. I really don’t see them here in rural, small town Wisconsin. Unless what you are describing is my meeting with anyone who wishes to join me for my new 2012 spiritual discipline: El Mariachi Wednesday (lunch and any conversation you wish to share). Maybe it is the conversations around my dining table with artists, kids, neighbors about culture, society, politics, hope, work, community.

    Maybe it happens in places I don’t go or am not invited. Our coffee shops close at 5 or 7pm. We don’t have many “third spaces” other than bars and we have WAY more of those than are good for us.

    I wish I knew if what you are describing happens here. But I’m just not sure. So, for now, we’ll keep hosting community dinners, providing a safe place for kids after school, gathering to learn, worship and renew our souls for the work of kin-dom building…oh, and continue to try loving each other better each day.

  4. OK, to respond:

    1) Sure, coutercultural’s great. I’m not committed to any word or plan for the future of Christian community. Relevance, countercultural, meaningful, faithful, et. al. Whatever works best for each community and context.
    2) I cannot predict nor control what might be the grammar of the faith, or anything else you mention in this point. Each community will figure that out for themselves, exactly they do today, exactly as they always have. Everyone is already doing what they think is right, whether it’s in their eyes or God’s, and that’s what Christian community has been about since the beginning. Yes, each community will continue to decide what the norms of Christian faith and the distinctive Christian practices will be for them. Just as they do now. This illusion that many live by, that somehow all Christians believe and practice the same things, will go the way of a Newtonian universe and heterosexist superiority. There is no one norm, paradigm, or agenda by which we can determine what is correct Christian belief and practice, and as soon as we try to construct one we end up being very not Christian.

    E.g., Franklin Graham may think President Obama isn’t a Christian because he believes and espouses different ideologies and worldivews, and then I would say that Graham’s not a Christian because of this asshole kind of thinking. Then someone else might think I’m not a Christian because I used the word asshole. Christians have looked very different across cultures, contexts, and circumstance. I don’t ever see that morphing into whatever uniformity some one person, community, or group is more comfrotable with.

    3. As with point 2, I feel the same way about this issue. Each community will decide how to handle abuse and accountability as they see fit. The last model we should look to for guidance in this is the way these issues are being handled in today’s Christian community. Almost every single Christian community can describe very recent incidents in which their community was abused in some way. Letting all these irrelevant structures die will not suudenly open new community to greater vulnerabillty to abuse and irresponsibility. In fact, in many cases, it might make them open to better structures for accountability.

    You have named countless places that this new church exists. In bars, coffee shops (what’s wrong with the closing at 5 or 7? What are you doin’ that’s so important that you can’t be there at those times?), around the tables in your own house, and other places you haven’t even thought about. Most people aren’t gonna come to things you host at whatever you now call your church, because it doesn’t factor into their daly lives. Stop waiting for the church to come to you. It’s already out there, go find it.
    Go to the places you normally don’t go and go especially to the places you aren’t invited! Do the good things you already are doing, with kids after school, with people in your home, with your efforts to love and worship and create conversation. Just don’t expect it to pay a mortgage, a salary, an electric bill. That’s not what church is for. This new community emerging among people under 40 won’t sustain that anymore. But it certainly will sustain real community and true Joy.

    • 1.Seems to me that “whatever [plan for the future of Christian community] works best for the local community” is what you’re advocating. If so, it sounds to me you are in accord with the Church of Christ which believes there is no true “church” beyond what the local faith community understands itself to be, yes?
      2.Of course, neither you nor I can “predict or control” the grammar of Christian faith, because grammar is likes grits on your plate in a Georgia restaurant. It just is. It is passed forward from those who spoke the Christian language before we did. Christian grammar has been evolving over thousands of years of arguing about who Jesus Christ is and what he does. I guess I am wondering what grammar is used to tell The Story that forms your church members into disciples of Jesus Christ, in an authentic faith community, so they bless God’s world. (And if those three points are not in some way shape or form part of your church’s mission, then I would be interested to know what do you consider makes it a Christian faith community?) Of course not all Christians believe and practice exactly the same things. However, there are some things the church should always say and do; and there some things the church should never say and do. The latter is amply illustrated by Westboro “Baptist Church.” Not all who label themselves “Christ followers” are. I am interested to know how Rev. Dennis determines what is and what isn’t an “asshole kind of thinking.” How do you identify (and try to convey to your church members) “asshole kind of thinking”–if the definition of what is (“anti-asshole?”) Christian thinking/speaking/acting refers to nothing beyond what “each community” believes it is?
      3. What is to prevent an abusive pastor from leaving in the middle of the night and pitching her/his tent somewhere among unsuspecting people and repeating the abuse, unless there are larger connections among individual faith communities? Preventing clergy abuse was one of the main reasons Alexander Campbell changed his tune later in life and encouraged individual congregations to cooperate–and the first General Assembly was born..

  5. I do really hope this is a conversation and not an argument, Dennis. I’m trying to say that I don’t know that what you are describing is really happening out here in the great north woods. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t and churches as we have known them will die anyway. I refuse to be afraid to die, personally or organizationally. My pushback is about whether your experience can truly be generalized. Nothing is wrong with coffee shops closing at 5:00, but it makes it hard for folks who work day shifts to get there. Bars are a concern here, a very real concern, in the binge-drinkingest state in the country. I can and do build some beautiful communities with some amazing friends. But it isn’t what I can call church. They wouldn’t call it church. Many of them aren’t Christian.

    Again, you may be right that new communities of faith can be built at the race track or bowling alley or hunting cabins or ice fishing shacks and I’ll just miss out on those because those aren’t my things. I’m sure there is worship going on at Lambeau Field (there is a state religion in Wisconsin), but it isn’t church.

    Church for me, continues to be a place where I gather with folks I wouldn’t encounter otherwise and relate to folks outside my usual affinity groups. That piece seems really hard to replicate other places…at least up here in the woods.

  6. Intriguing article!

    I love third spaces – I love doing ministry in unlikely places. There is great possibility for that in rural settings just as in urban settings. The more flexible we can be, the more possibilities we will have for ministry. But for churches looking for ways to keep their building or maintain their church staff, it becomes difficult. Think about it this way – it’s hard enough in our culture to break bread and dialogue with folks who feel put off or alienated by religion. It’s even harder then to sell them on joining your church to maintain an aging building. Jesus didn’t talk that way. We shouldn’t talk or think that way.

    But it’s still scary for folks who feel called to this ministry as a vocation and hope for a decent paycheck.

    It’s scary for folks who love their churches and their institution.

    Dennis, what do you do with your fear? When you are stepping into the unknown, what do you see in Jesus that gives you courage to take the next step?

  7. Susan:
    This is definitely a conversation! And I will continue to affirm your search for community. We have to go to it, wherever it is, within whatever timeframe we can find it. I wouldn’t call these communities for the future churches, either, and many, if not most, of the people involved within them won’t call themselves Christian. Wonderful. As long as we are in community together, Christ will be at the center.
    Open Hearts Gathering isn’t a Christian Church, and some of the people involved within it are not Christian. Many things we get involved with are not OHG events, but when we’re involved (e.g. the activities organized by The Gaston Interfaith Center, http://disciplesintersection.org/) the community is present. Faith community is taking place. Church is happenin’! This is what What’s Next will look like, I hope you can find ways to help incarnate it where you are.

    As I sorta say in my article, if you’re called to minister in these places that will die, great! Just be prepared to help them to die, and please help them discover ways to help support what comes next. Don’t let great resources that these dying communities have die with them. Help them find ways to support What’s Next.
    Jesus is the Incarnation of this What’s Next, and if we just start to, take, just, little steps into imitating him, we will have the strength to overcome our fears. Helping Jesus to build this Kin-dom within faith communities for the future has NOTHING to do with buildings, budgets, and salaries for stable careers. Decent paychecks, maybe, but that’s not what Jesus is out to institute. Where I get a salary and what to do with retirement planning is my concern, and my greatest fear is this institution continuing to think it has to focus on these things for a certain professional class within the community. What a waste of resources! The first step into walking with Jesus into kin-dom building is to use these millions for actual kin-dom building.
    Yea, it’s scary, but once you start to realize that the paradigms have to change drastically, and that they can once we have the courage to change them, well, the possibilities are endless. It is tough work to get a commuity to realize that worrying about the building, maintaining a paid staff, and/or trying to “sell” anyone on anything they have to “join” (ugh!) is a waste of time. But, oh my, once you get communities focused on what matters most, and how to use those resources for the future….it’s exciting to imagine what will happen next!

    If you’re lookin’ for help in this What’s Next, get hooked up with Steve Knight and our Disciples’ Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation (http://disciplesintersection.org/). He and I helped put Open Hearts Gathering together here in Gastonia, and he’s helping Disciples communities of all stripes to embrace their part in this Next. He might be a helpful resource for others of you out there….

  8. Hey, Dennis. You have put a lot out there to think about. I do find that I disagree with your emphasis of “Let it Die” in regards to what you refer to as “Traditional Church”. First of all, let me say that I, too, have spent the majority of my adult life hoping for, wishing for and trying to be a part of the renewal or change that I believe that churches need to make in order to be more faithful as they seek to follow Christ. I think that we within the structures of the church have an ongoing struggle with being co-opted by culture and society that does not reflect the Gospel. We often and regularly put our resources and attention into things that are poor reflections of being faithful disciples. I also encourage and support the ways that you describe the Incarnate God manifesting in the world, outside of the structures of Traditional Church. Frankly, I find it to be both challenging, a little frightening, and exciting all at once (maybe my response is a bit like the people in scripture who when encountered by an angel or God are told to not be afraid- God’s activity can be scary.) I disagree with your “Let it Die” approach because it seems to assume that you know where God is Not- (i. e., the Traditional Church). I, for one, desire to be a disciple of Christ in large part because of the witness of individuals and communities who are and have been a part of what constitutes the Traditional Church. You may be right in that the current trends will spell radical reformation of the nature of christian community, which if we seek to be faithful to God’s activity in our lives, we will welcome and embrace. It is, however, not for you to decide where God is working and what needs to die. It just may be that God is still working within the Traditional Church and does not need to “Leave the Building” in order to be working in the world and in this new paradigm of christian community. I appreciate a comment by Susan Phillips, above, “Church for me, continues to be a place where I gather with folks I wouldn’t encounter otherwise and relate to folks outside my usual affinity groups.” And I would add, folks who are seeking (in their own fitful and limited ways, in need of grace) to be faithful to Christ in the world and in themselves.

  9. When the op-ed piece hit the New York TImes in December, in which the author challenged churches to create spaces for “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation), Steve Knight pushed back and said that lots of faith communities were already doing it. My push back was an invitation http://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2011/12/an-invitation-to-none/

    Dennis, I see some contradictions in your responses that I don’t know how to square (and please know that I’m cool with paradox).

    You write: “We have to go to it, wherever it is, within whatever timeframe we can find it. I wouldn’t call these communities for the future churches, either, and many, if not most, of the people involved within them won’t call themselves Christian. Wonderful. As long as we are in community together, Christ will be at the center.”

    So here is my problem — You say that future communities aren’t churches but where “Faith community is taking place. Church is happenin’!” Which is it? They aren’t churches, but church is happening?
    You say that the folks who gather aren’t necessarily Christian, but Christ is at the center. My friends, who are not Christian, are not blessed by that understanding. I say this as one who lives in a multi-religious household.

    I do agree that paid ministry will most likely come to an end sooner than later. I keep waiting for G-d to let me know what my next career will be, but I’ve had no epiphanies, yet.

  10. Pingback: The Church Won’t Die (But Our Unhealthy Attachment to Institutions Must) | [D]mergent

  11. Pingback: THE SECOND COMING – RECLAIMED | [D]mergent

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