Inspired by the work of the PCUSA Committee on the Nature of the Church in the 21st century Committee [that’s a mouthful of a name and a charge] and provoked (in all kinds of good ways) by Carol Howard Merritt’s blogging at http://tribalchurch.org/?p=2064 This is the first of a series of blogs intended to engage the five questions that committee is wrestling with on our behalf.
When a person prepares to seek a call to serve as Teaching Elder (a.k.a. Minister of Word and Sacrament, a.k.a. Pastor), the actual job search begins with the development of a Personal Information Form which provides for the searching congregation a concise description of her theology and praxis. The first question asks for a statement on the nature of the local church: In 1500 characters (spaces, punctuation and paragraph returns included), please describe the characteristics of the church or organization you would like to serve, and the unique gifts, skills and experiences you would bring to the position.
Without preamble, the candidate is asked immediately to go on the record, making clear their vision of the church they would hope to serve. The congregation’s own profile (the CIF – Church Information Form) asks a similar question. In addition, for a long time, statements about the nature of the church have been an essential part of our constitution, laying out a foundational concern from the very beginning. This says quite a lot about our desire to strive together, to order our life together so that we might joyfully participate in the ongoing life and work of Christ.
Because the church through the ages has seen this as essential, it is important to think about what that could look like in a new age where so much has changed and where so much continues to change. In the first 10 years of the 21st century, we have already seen incredible change in our congregations and in the communities around them. Continuing the trends of the end of the 20th century, increased mobility, greater dependence on technology, increasing connections to a wider global economy and a severe economic downturn continue to exert a great deal of influence on our way of life. While it seems like there should be more opportunities to make connections and build relationships, these influences seem to work together to contribute to a deepening sense of alienation and even despair as problems that once seemed so distant as to be nearly invisible are now brought to our attention with great frequency and immediacy. at the same time, finding solutions to those problems remains a far off, seemingly unattainable hope. It is in this context the church must find it’s place.
Starting at the beginning is often good. That doesn’t mean we need to turn our efforts toward retrieving and then attempting to relive some imagined past, returning to some idealized version of the early church or, for that matter, the church that was great “when I was a child.” However, we would do well to return to the roots of the True Vine, Jesus Christ, acknowledging and renewing our commitment to be his living expression in the world.
To do that, the 21st century church will need to refocus its energies on living the servant ministry of Jesus in its sacrificial and radically welcoming nature, acting as a vessel for God’s healing mercy and justice. However, simply making prophetic statements and preaching well about our strong sense of justice and compassion must be coupled with “feet on the ground,” servants whose advocacy for the marginalized is demonstrated in a willingness to give up power, to set aside privilege and to live more simply so that the prophetic can become real. This will require each particular congregation, and the larger body to which they belong, to participate in ongoing thoughtful evaluation of their ministry through prayer, study and conversation with the culture/community within and around it, asking hard questions, setting aside “shoulds” and trying to live as vibrantly as possible, making good use of the gifts God has provided in each particular context.
Questions like these need to be always “on the table.”
How is our congregation/denomination living as a gathering of disciples who are intentional about looking for, celebrating and making use of God’s generously abundant providence in this very moment?
What kinds of changes need to be made to bring us to a deeper awareness of and alignment with what the Holy Spirit is doing today?
What do we need to do to be able to graciously raise the gospel challenges that require us to rethink our current understandings without trampling long held beliefs and with sensitivity to the grief that comes when paradigms shift?
Where are we making connections with God’s people outside the doors of our church, outside the structure of our denomination, listening, learning and working together in energizing, life-giving ways to help bring about God’s vibrantly salvific kingdom of Shalom?
How much time do we spend “in a quiet place” with God? How much do we emphasize working to deepen our discipleship: nurturing spiritual growth, worshipping together, providing loving care and tough love, strengthening our connections to those we consider “other?”
How can we do a better job of making relevant connections between scripture, our confessions, our polity and real human experience?
In this time of upheaval and chaos in nearly every part of human life, it’s not surprising that many might wonder: “Why in the world would we want to do this visioning work again so soon? There is enough turmoil, enough fear, enough…” Yet if we learn anything from reading scripture, if we’ve learned anything from looking at the Christian faith over two milennia, if know anything about ourselves, our families and yes, our congregations, change is always among us. Our amazingly creative God is always doing something new. Resurrection happens every day in big and small ways. New life is always springing forth. It is the job of the 21st century church to step forward in faith, with open eyes and ears, open hearts and minds so that we can be part of what God is already doing.