By Dennis Teall-Fleming
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.