Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Once and Future Church

One of the things I do as an interim is to hold periodic congregational gatherings. At least four times during the year I am with them, we have one celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday, followed by everyone adjourning to the parish hall for brunch and a discussion. The topics are;

1. Celebrating the Past - this includes a "fishing expedition" on my part, in an attempt to draw out unresolved issues. It also allows space for the anticipated grieving process as a response to the departure of their previous spiritual leader. Most importantly, it allows the congregation to see themselves more objectively, as we consider what has been done well, and what has been done not so well, in the past.

2. Evaluating the Present - this is a careful look at who the congregation is at this specific moment. Usually, much of this evaluation has already happened within the first session (our history is always tangled up with our present perspective of things). Consequently, I tend to focus on particular gifts the congregation has to offer to one another and the world. More about this in a bit.

3. Envisioning the Future - This session is held very near the time of the calling of their new rector. It is a method of "paving the way" for this next chapter in their corporate life. Using the information gathered from previous sessions; what has worked and what hasn't in the past, what specific gifts are present within the membership, dreams for the future are explored. Care has to taken to keep a bit of a tight rein on this session, as specific plans need to wait until the arrival of the new priest.

4. Annual Meeting - Somewhere between these sessions will be the Annual Meeting of the parish, which will follow the same format of the interim sessions.

Right now I am preparing for the second session, "evaluating the present." One of the tools I use is a video prepared by the Alban Institute of Loren Mead discussing his book, The Once and Future Church. I usually use part two of the video, as it addresses the need for us to recognize the wide diversity of expressions of Christianity that make up any congregation. Maybe more about this segment another time.

I've been asked to offer this video at the monthly meeting of the diocesan interim clergy. In preparation for that, I reviewed the entire tape last night. I was struck by some of the insights within the first part of the presentation; the part I usually don't use. Let me say just a bit about this presentation, as I think it is pertinent to other discussions happening within the Church right now.

Mead breaks down the history of Christendom into three eras; the Apostolic, the Christian, and the Emerging. He identifies three different environments in which each era existed. During the Apostolic era, the environment was hostile to the message of the Gospel. During the Christian era (which lasted through most of the 20th century), the environment was primarily Christian, as that was the dominant world view. In the Emerging era, the external environment is, at best, ambiguous to the message.

Some of us have witnessed this shift from the Christian to the Emerging era in our own lifetime. Here's just a few of the indicators;

In the Christian era, all of society was understood to be religious. In the Emerging era, society is often not religious at all.

In the Christian era, most public institutions were permeated with religious values. In the Emerging era, most public activities have no reference to religion.

In the Christian era, most people were expected to be members of a church. It was almost considered un-American not to be. In the Emerging era, church is for religious people, not ordinary people.

In the Christian era, religion was very public. In the Emerging era, religion is private, irrelevant, or optional.

In the Christian era, almost everyone is acquainted with the biblical story. In the Emerging era, few people know anything about the bible.

I think much of the Church is in denial of this reality. The energy seems to be drawn towards trying to recapture the glory days; to turn back the clock. In the meantime, God has continued to work in the world, but not always in the same ways as the Church has perceived the movement of God in the past.

The apostolic mission of the Church has to be rethought; no longer can the mission of the Church be primary. It has to give way to the mission of God, which can often be discovered outside the traditional boundaries of what we understand to be "church" or "religion."

Our mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ is hindered when we understand that to mean we are taking something out into the world that does not already exist; that our message is the most important one. That blocks our ability to see what God might already be doing in the life of someone else. When we insist on others accepting our understanding of God, and use the bible as a weapon to beat them into submission, we turn them away from Christ with our arrogant manner.

The world has changed. Today, we are called to meet people where they are in their spiritual life, and not drag them to where we think they should be. We listen to their story, offer our story, and look for the places that God's story intersects them both.

This doesn't dismiss the need for a catechumenate process, continuing education, amendment of life and spiritual disciplines. Those are elements that will gradually become meaningful to a person who is nurtured into developing a relationship with Jesus Christ. To demand it all from the beginning is blocking the way into the kingdom for others. It seems to me this is the error that Jesus saw within the Pharisees. Are we doomed to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again?

More about part two of this video, including the four internal tasks for equipping the Church to be apostles; proclamation, teaching, service and community, another time.


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