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.