An Old Church by Bo Nielsen Flickr 2010 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Never have there been so many good people so perplexed about what to do with ‘church.’ We have all read the books and blogs and stats and prognostications. We know that ‘church’ is no longer the static, unchanging block we had hoped to build, the center of a strong community in the likeness of the temple mount, brick, mortar, steeple and all. This change is called ‘decline,’ and calling it decline helps us name our grief in the face of a much harder word for us—change.
But. Our God is called the ‘unmoved mover.’ And like it or not, we are being moved.
With grief in our gut it is hard to see change as anything but downward from the top. But I am not sure if that is really a faithful way to think about it. If this ‘decline’ is about movement, let us remember that our mover is God.
I have come to believe that it is far more faithful to see the church not as static but as seasonal. I have come to believe this fallowness we feel as our pews empty is a prelude to a new beginning. The world—this gorgeous creation that God made—every second turns. Nothing about it is static not even the cornerstones. As the poet tells us, there is a time for every season under heaven.
Think of it this way, Abrahamic faith goes back many thousands of years. For two of those thousands there has been Christianity and church. So what I am saying is that there have been far worse freakouts about ‘decline’ before this.
Primal Scream by Daniel Go Flickr 2010 CC BY-NC 2.0.jpg
For example, the crusades. Also, the inquisition. Following every rising summer there’s a fall. Think of all those gorgeous 12th century European monasteries, built in a rush of mother orders, daughter houses, and copiest monks. By the 1400s these monastic monuments were falling apart. I mean real decay, collapsing walls and the like. Their cold and hungry occupants took to selling whatever they could of what they had to stay ahead of real starvation.
And yet, somehow, the church is still here after all those ups and downs. Somehow the Western Pope still claims apostolic supremacy, priests still wear Greco-Roman dalmaticas and bishops still wear those silly mitered hats. Our Reverends are not just Very, but also Very, Very Reverend, thank you very much.
What, then, is this season we are in? How and why and where can God be moving us? And, far more to the point, how do we explain to our congregations about this new thing that God is doing?
I like visuals. Here are a few:
This photograph is a visual representation of a pastoral church. Notice all the sheep together at the center of an enclosed corral. Notice the shepherd at the front. It is his job to see to all the needs of every sheep. In the Pastoral season of the church, the Pastor is very shepherd-like, indeed.
LeadingTheFlock by Christina Flickr 2007 CC BY-NC 2.0
Here is another visual.
This image shows an ‘in-group’ Pastoral church. The sheep cluster at the center and gather with each other. The corral is built with sturdy walls, declaring the authority of those within and keeping out any wolves of questionable character. The gate becomes narrow indeed, and if you do make it in, you still may not make it into true acceptance. In the best case scenario, you are born ‘grandfathered in.’
Erstwhile escapees, misbehavers, and instigators beware. There is a behavior code at this church and you best look to it lest you drink damnation on your head. Stay within the narrow gate and keep ye in the fold or the shepherd’s dogs will chase you and nip painfully at your heels.
Oh My Goodness by Kurt Nordstrom Flickr 2004 CC BY 2.0
We like to say that it is only the mainline church that is experiencing this ‘decline,’ but make no mistake. The mega-church operates along very similar lines. When care is needed for the flock it is the pastor who is wanted to do it. The pastor gathers in, the pastor lays to rest, the expectation is for the pastor to be all things exactly in accordance with the needs of the sheep—in our lookish culture ‘looking cool’ is a plus. Comforter, protector, mind reader. Mega Churches are stocked full of pastors for this reason. They are led by what I call Charismatic MegaPastors, drawing the followers—hopeful and goggle-eyed—into the fold.
The Pastoral Church has within it is a particular kind of church and spiritual ideal. This next image captures that ideal beautifully, it is an illustration reminiscent of a 1950s story book.
TheGoodShepherd50 by WaitingForTheWord Flickr 2011 CC BY 2.0
The best part about the above image is that at the heart of it there is truth in its sentiment. This image, with Jesus as healer and comforter, shows us a real and worthy aspect of good church. There is nothing wrong with the Pastoral Model. It has some measure of existence always. For even in the winter, some seeds will sprout. It has its valid season. For about 100 years now, the Pastor Model in the US has been at the idealistic center of church.
I believe we are moving away from the Pastoral season and into the Apostolic. I am contrasting the Pastoral model with the Apostolic model for church. But beware reading a negative comparison into this post. Change does not need either negative or positive comparison to be valid. Change just is. We needn’t justify change because ‘before’ was awful and ‘next’ is the best. We also needn’t denigrate change by calling it ‘decline’ simply because ‘next’ is different than we expected.
The harm, the pain, the infighting, that all comes from disappointment and disparagement. Change makes a gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’ and gaps are uneasy places to be. Add to that the frustration of unmet expectation, or a negative patina, and the gap becomes precarious and confusing. The Pastoral Model tells me I should get back into line. What do I do if that line no longer exists? The pastoral sheep is legit anxious. He asks, if I ‘should’ do one thing and am doing another, can that can be called ‘bad?’ How can I be a good sheep, now?
To this I say, Are the autumn leaves bad? Would the summer tree think so?
Here’s a bit of truth: The Pastoral Church led by a good, unfailing, and mindreading shepherd is waning. What is rising is a new age of apostleship.
What does this look like?
The Apostolic Church is about ‘moving outside the walls.’ We have heard that phase 1000 times, but what does it really mean? It means commissioning is no longer the purview of an elder with a stole or a bishop with a pointy hat. It means that ‘church’ as ‘the people, the ecclesia’ is called to move with love and humility and purpose from the corral out into the world. It means we recognize the Holy Spirit blows where it will and makes priests of us all.
Here is an image, a mural, from St Mary Abbotts Parish Church in Kensington, London.
Pasce Oves Meas photo by Lawrence OP Flickr 2008 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
You can see there are still sheep, but what is happening here is the Spirit is being brokered through Christ to the church leaders and members and the ability to broker the power of God, as God’s own doing, is spread.
The Apostolic Model is responsive to those in need of food, shelter, and comfort. But it does not keep the faithful comforted at the center of the church. Instead it empowers them—warts, wool, and all—to move actively and powerfully in the world. The Apostolic Church does not put the sheep at the center of an enclosure, but instead it meets them at the center of where they are in the world moving them closer and closer toward the reality of the kingdom of God.
Here’s another compiled graphic. See how the gates and walls of the corral are open. The sheep within gather for ‘church’ as do the sheep outside.
For those of us trained in the Pastoral Model this looks like terrifying chaos. But it also looks like pentecost, and like Acts, and looking at it I can hear the words from Matthew, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Here, there is no in-group to police the borders and keep the wrong sort out. That is not a primary concern of this type of church. And here, the Pastor is not responsible to meet every need of the wooly in-group. Instead the Pastor offers teaching, exhortation, love, direction. ‘Go and make disciples, go and be learners, walk with power in the Spirit, by your work and your love let the world see the greatness of God.’
Here’s an example of this in action.
I took a trip to El Salvador and had the honor of meeting three nuns, Sisters Naomi, Hortensia and Valentina, in a village called ‘New Hope’ Nueva Esperanza. The sisters run a hostel in the village which is their home. The hostel is not about corralling people in on Sundays for services. Instead, it is designed to be an outpost, a place of service, a way to reach, bless, and walk alongside the real people that God loves.
With unimaginable courage (this is El Salvador!) these three amazing women move from their center out into the world. They teach, encourage, rebuke, bless, visit the sick, counsel the bereft, challenge toxic politics, run a pre-school, support students from kindergarten to university, provide and assist with medical care, build a medical and dental clinic and so much more. They have kept the history of the village—the truth not the lie we too often wish to tell about who we are and what we do. They feed the hungry, clothe the naked, rally for the release of every captive, and remember the dead. They are God’s witnesses in Judea, in Samaria, in Jerusalem, and to the ends of the earth.
That is apostolic church.
A word of caution. I am not simply talking about ‘mission.’ I am not talking about jet setting in from on high, drunk on privilege as if you bring the super-powers of Jesus with you in a wad of cash. This is not about building a school for poor people in whose gratitude you plan to bask. There are real problems with ‘mission’ of this type. I speak instead of truly humble service. I speak of the spirit of Mark 10, sell all you have and follow me.
Nueva Esperanza is in El Salvador, and the needs of the people in that country are different than the needs of people in Kansas, or in Washington State. But the idea is the same. Going ‘outside the walls’ is not as simple as just peeking around the corner, hosting an ice cream social, or broadcasting Sunday worship on social media and closed circuit TV. Going outside the walls is about a fundamentally different way to understand the relationship between the people and the divine, the shepherd and the sheep.
Therefore go. Repent of this word ‘decline.’ Dare to touch a life, dare to plant a seed, dare to clothe the naked, dare to see and hear and heed the call of the next-rising church.
Most of us have had the fun of either participating in a game of Jenga or watching one. The basics of the game are that you begin with a solid stack of small wooden bricks, and you stack them in a sturdy square shape many layers high. Each layer has three bricks.
To play the game, you pull out a brick from a layer and place it on the top of the stack. Doing this creates new layers for a growing tower. The goal is to remove and stack the bricks without unbalancing and toppling the tower!
Jenga3 by Herman Rhoids 2012 Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
The result, inevitably, is that no matter how faithful you are in stacking bricks—and some of us have become experts at this—
Jenga work by Santibon 2008 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
—no matter how faithful you are, eventually, the bricks will fall and you will need to start again.
Anyone who has ever played the game knows that when skilled players are involved the Jenga game tower can get very tall as brick after brick is removed from the pile and stacked up high.
Millie contemplates giant jenga by Courtney Coco Mault 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Pretty soon, as the tension mounts, all attention is rapt and captured by the game. By the time the tower gets tall, with each brick that must be moved there is the looming reality that the tower will fall. The players’ hands get sweaty. They clench their teeth. They hold their breath. Perhaps they grip the table to hold it absolutely still. Or perhaps they don’t dare touch the table at all!
Either way, players and witnesses alike are held captive by the process. Balancing the tower takes up every inch of the room. Don’t move! Don’t talk! Don’t even breathe! Hold absolutely still because any motion at all—the slightest breeze—will bring the whole thing crashing down.
Jenga by riNux 2006 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
It can feel like we are in a place in the life of the church that is exactly like this point in a Jenga game. Our church towers are stretched tall and we are totally invested in the hope that somehow—miraculously or by sheer willfulness—we can keep this game going. To do so requires absolute concentration and a very narrow focus. Every request to move a brick is a trial and so every request is met by dread and cold stares, even outright hostility. Can’t you see we barely got this? Don’t you know the stakes?
My own stomach grips just thinking about the effort. I know from seeing it that the folks that serve on the committees in charge of keeping that tower up are exhausted by the effort. Their church life has turned into an ordeal and they grip that table for sheer life holding off every tiny disruption because each one could spell doom for all that has been built.
Jenga Warfare by Chuck Burgess 2008 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I get this. I have seen it and I have myself felt my heart gripped with terror that something will come along and exhaust the meager budgets and declining manpower of the local church. I have been the recipient of hostile glances, and thrown a few of my own—stand back! Can’t you see the tower teetering! If you bring that toddler in here the whole thing is doomed!
In the church renewal effort it is really easy to point fingers at the nervous Jenga committee with the chronic heartburn and say all would be well if only they would lighten up. In reality these folks are just stuck in the system. Exchange any person in this scenario with another person and the result would likely be the same. Those tasked with keeping that tower up—and worse yet, tasked with the inevitable trial of moving the next brick!—are going to need a lot of Mylanta. A whole lot. Given this task as a test of faithfulness even Job’s three quiet and serene friends would totally freak out.
So here is what we do.
1. We name the problem —with a little humor. We are trying to keep the structure of the church up and steady despite the fact that the structure is no longer sturdy or effective. If you think about it, it’s a little crazy to imagine a game of Jenga going forever and if that is what we are aiming at it is no wonder we’re going crazy.
Jenga 1 by Jon Hayes 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
2. Breathe. Recognize that we are investing a tremendous amount of energy into holding absolutely, impossibly still while blockading the table to prevent anyone outside the system from coming anywhere near it. We cannot hope to win or get a life like this.
3. Unfreeze. Move your body. Recognize that neither the bible nor the game of Jenga come with a bottle of glue and so the building blocks of ‘church’ are not supposed to get glued into an impenetrable, immovable fortress and neither are you.
4. Be realistic. There are only so many bricks. Anyone who plays Jenga knows that the game cannot go on forever. At some point the whole point is to start again. Each tower is built only once for the purpose of that one game. You build, rebuild, and rebuild. That’s the whole point.
5. Be Assured. If you are Methodist like me, assurance is part of our core teaching. God loves you and loves the church. We cannot fail or mess it up, God will continue to work in the new things that await us. We really can let go and let God and still be good people with strong faith. God is not fooled by our efforts to hold the table really still. God knows exactly how Jenga works. Sometimes it is just time for a new game.
5. Let the game play out. Just do it. Step back and breathe and pray and pray more and let the tower do what it must. Let other people try a brick, if it falls well maybe it needed to fall. Do not let an unwieldy structure suck the life and energy from your faith. Let it go. Let it fall. Be freed of captivity to a system that would give you heartburn without giving you Life.
6. Start anew. If you were really hoping and really holding on, when the bricks fall there will be an audible ‘Aahhh!’ when it finally goes—
Jenga 3 by Jon Hayes 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
—and there will be mourning.
Jenga Loser by JThornett 2007 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
But here’s the great thing about Jenga:
1. You don’t start over with nothing. You get to keep all the bricks you had, every one. When you start anew you will have exactly the same resources you had to work with that you did when you were hunched pop-eyed over the listing tower. These resources can now be applied in new directions and for new things!
2. You don’t lose anything. Every brick still matters. No brick is discarded in the renewal. (Yes, people can and do leave during renewal processes. But in Jenga you keep every brick. That is a standard of faithfulness I admire.)
3. You will see new things. For every change you make in the structure, you will create new windows of possibility. Look through these new windows, channels, and alleys and discover new insights and perspectives!
Jenga by Mikel Ortega 2009 Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
3. Try and try again. Once the big scary tower is down, the bricks on the ground are transformed. No longer are they the pendulous weights of Armageddon, now they are tumbled in the energy of possibilities. You can assemble them in any way you like. If they fall, they don’t fall far because you are trying new things. If what you are assembling doesn’t seem to be working, try again!
4. Play. Freed of captivity to doom you can play a little! That toddler doesn’t seem half as terrifying once we are all in the business of church together.
Destroy the Jenga tower by Mark Evans 2010 Flickr CC BY 2.0
All ages worshiping together is the gold standard of community. As your church commits to renewal new work and new play will bring new relevance and new celebration into church.
You Lose by Jason Ternus 2001 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Pretty soon you will be seeing new possibilities for Jenga everywhere.
Jenga Chips by Stuart Caie 2008 Flickr CC BY 2.0
Imagine what is possible now that your energy is freed for renewal. The questions that will arise will help us shape the structures of the future. What kind of shape do we need? What structure will really help us build a new church?
5. The Holy Spirit will show up. As you engage holy work you can simply expect the holy spirit will be with you. Are you watching for it? New things will arise from under the rubble. When you step back from the table and let the bricks fall, you will discover that there is life all around you.
You will also discover that these seasons of renewal are ancient and far more enduring than you ever imagined. By participating in the seasons of church you are participating in the most sacred work we know.
Jenga Stack by Jorgen Schyberg 2006 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
No one should be asked to hold onto a game of Jenga beyond what is realistically possible. And no one should expect anyone else to do it, either. Demanding a freeze on what must be renewed is an unfaithful and unreasonable task, one that leads to heartsickness not to life. It really is possible to let go. It really is possible to step back. It really is possible to be assured that if God is doing something new it will be sacred and it will be good.
Jenga Abbey by Chisel Wright 2007 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
And, in stepping into the new church, you will not be losing the old one. You will get to be part of all the good that God has done with all the Good that God is doing and will do.
Church renewal is about recognizing the shifting bricks as important building blocks for a lasting faith. They build and they shift and they rebuild and they fall and they build again. That is church work. That is kingdom work. That is the work of the people of God.
Note At our church for a number of weeks we are playing Jenga! We have Jenga on the chancel and entry, and in our parlor and the fellowship hall. The idea is to have the courage to let go of the systems that have power over us but are not life affirming for the church. Jenga becomes a metaphor for the work of renewal through material, tactile play. We can experience building and rebuilding and survive each fall—even begin to look forward to what will occur in each next small season! We are looking to build new and renewed structures that can and will affirm our faith.
Christians say some corny things, and that corniness can seem a little cringe worthy—even to other Christians—sometimes. The words of our faith, when straightforwardly presented, can sound absolutely cheesy—even our best liturgy such as “the Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” I catch myself at the grocery store caught in this goodwill pattern. When the clerk says, “thank you, have a great day,” I will reply, “and also you!”
Perfectly legitimate words of ritual and Christian experience can sound painful out of context. The cheeziness of heartfelt Christianity when it bursts into the mundane world brings real world wincing. Take for example an overly loud public declaration of Christian concern, like “honey, that just makes me want to lay hands of you!” in the middle of a downtown Starbucks. You are going to get some wincing and some guffaws. This whinging stems from what we might call our ‘cornball coping mechanisms.’ All that goodwill coming directly and fearlessly at you is a tense thing in a public place. That tension must find release somewhere, and one of the ways we release that tension as a culture is in humor.
Cornball comedy is comedy that is so direct it makes you cringe, and then you have to laugh just so you can get the muscles in your cringed-up shoulders to release a little bit. Cornball comedy makes fun of us humans at our most vulnerable and in our most unsophisticated moments. We are awkward if well-meaning creatures, and ripe for a little ribbing. When the comedy is just right, it hits cult or meme status.
I can think of an example right now, the movie Blues Brothers. This is a movie where the very misguided lead characters try very hard to actually do the right thing for the first time in their lives. They have a clearly defined need: to learn how to be better people in the world. They have a clearly defined goal: to save an orphanage from foreclosure over debt. But, they have a very cornball understanding of God and goodness, which they articulate with cringe worthy hilarity and declarations such as the much memed “we are on a mission from God.” The words stick. They are simultaneously wondrous and horrifying.
It is helpful to remember as you shudder and moan that we all start somewhere. For the Blues Brothers, their befuddled and hackneyed path to redemption is really not that different than our own. All of us are forced to use phrases that sound too corny for life when we are trying to communicate the things on our hearts that matter. Phrases like “we are on a mission from God,” and “can you share the words on your heart right now?” and “let’s all sing and love each other” are an example. That last sentence is one I heard a child say, and even as I giggle at the plain-speak of children (so cute and so corny!) I realize, too, that God asks us to open ourselves to just this kind of innocent trust and simplicity if we really want to heal our lives and change the world.
If the words are clumsy, the truth is made plain. Christians are a missional people. We are on a mission to make the world a better place. We work to feed children, care for the disabled, and develop social systems from the grandest to the lowest levels to make this world a better place for all. We are clumsy, we are inexperienced, and we are drawn forward into mission by the call we feel within us. We get the sense that there really is, truly and deeply, something more to our chaotic rascally lives than punching time clocks, frequenting happy hour, and hitting snooze for five more minutes. We, each of us, have something real to offer. We, each of us, bring gifts that are vital to the work. And we, each of us—and more importantly all of us together—are indeed (groans notwithstanding) on a mission for God.
And think of it this way, if it helps, that there is a reason the secular world has appropriated the language of faith for its own uses. It is precisely because these words and actions and phrases hold power that they become, even out of context, a means though which the larger conversation finds itself socially engaged. It’s a start. We as a Christian people by no means have to leave it there.
As we work together on embracing Christian faith in the midst of an evermore secular world, we probably need to get comfortable with being cheezy now and then. We probably need to give ourselves permission to be clumsy and sometimes feel a little awkward and out of place. It is simply the truth that we do not to know the path ahead. We do not even know if we will be one of the next wave to truly cross the threshold into something new, or if we will be among the ones who will wave that next wave onward into places we ourselves will never see. But in either case it is not the end that matters but the beginning. We are called to a new beginning, a renewed vision, and a next-chance to make a difference. Our earnest simplicity and our willingness to risk a little cornball will be essential to the task.
This video came across my facebook feed and, wow, what a clip. First, I love the ferocious courage of Stephen Fry. He knows himself. He’s smart, and snarky, and often right on point, and I love that about him.
He has also experienced his share of unfairness and looked theodicy (the question of evil) in the eye. And even uses the theological word for questioning evil, which means he has made direct inquiry, right into the heart of of it where all the answers are supposed to be. ‘Theodicy’ isn’t a word you generally hear outside of seminary—and then maybe only for a class or two. To know this word is to have asked the really big questions.
Stephen Fry and I, we ask the same questions—but we answer them differently.
I think we should never back away from demanding to know why there is evil in the world and asking, as well, how we are called to respond to it, and what we are called to do about it. I am not smart enough to have it all figured out, I am not that powerful or great. I trust instead to humility in the face of power greater than my own, be it God or a swarm of ravenous insects. I believe despite our make-no-sense world that we can in fact be a force for serving what is good. Is there capricious suffering in the world? You bet. But I will not serve it.
Why is there suffering? I do not know. But I will stand here with you and I will abide through the pain and injustice, and I will never let go of love and I will declare God good.
I am hurt
and I am angry about that.
I cannot be honest
and vulnerable about my hurt
or you will just hurt me again—
I long for something better, but
my hurt makes me hate you.
And I have been hurting for too long. So—
I’ll hurt you back.
I’ll make you angry.
I’ll provoke you to rage, to madness, to violence,
you will never rest,
there will never be peace,
and all will see that you belong to the self-same suffering
that has captured me.
dıaptych(lεƒt) by Jef Safi 2008 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
This alone is right and fair: that you will suffer
as I have suffered,
as we all have suffered,
and you will see
I am the righteous one, here. We—
we will meet on the field of anger. And, if—
if you will not apologize,
if you will not agree to the world of my experiences
with my conditions,
with my demands,
if you refuse to hear me screaming
if you knock down my words, then—
there will be a clash,
there will be a war of fortresses,
and mutual annihilation.