Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lost In Transition

Last week I attended a conference in Dallas optimistically titled Next Church 2012. In hindsight, I find the name humorous and a tad ironic since the conversation acknowledged that we are in an age of transition moving towards something new but without a clear vision of what that may be. The name, Next Church, and the associated workshops seemed to imply that those who organized the conference had a clear vision of what might be coming next. I guess I went hoping to gain insight into what the future holds for the PCUSA in general and the congregation where I am pastor in particular. I certainly do not want to be left behind if the church is headed towards some new and exciting future. While there was not a moment of divine revelation with angels singing “Alleluia,” I did come away with a sense that all gathered were united in an understanding that something new and different is on the horizon.

One of the best questions asked during one of the workshops was how is church a noun and how is it a verb? My experience in the church makes me believe that when the general question of what is church is asked the answer assumes bricks and mortar. We have been conditioned to think in terms of buildings, structures, and institutions, the nouns of the church. However, if we begin to think in terms of mission and ministry church becomes a verb. During periods of shifting paradigms this distinction is what often gets lost in translation or lost in transition. Often when faced with the challenges of a culture shift we seek to find ways to improve the old models rather than creatively imagine a new way of doing things. We keep trying to improve our old mousetrap even though it hasn’t caught mice in years. To be something new or next we sometimes have to quit refining the old and come up with the radically different. As Stacy Johnson, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Seminary put it, to be a new church we have to stop reinterpreting the devotions of old and come up with our own new devotions (paraphrased).

I believe we are on the cusp of some radical re-conceptualization of how church exists in the western world particularly in the United States. Historically and culturally it feels like the conditions are ripe for a new reformation of the church. I believe the church is moving away from structures and institutions to personal and communal connections. Reformation has often been defined as moving back towards an apostolic understanding of church. In this way I think we will see church growth move away from monolithic brick and mortar edifices back to house churches. For the PCUSA, I think the connectional church is going to be less defined by polity and bureaucracy and more by dynamic relationships.

I am not advocating throwing the baby out with the bath water, but when it’s time to change we need ensure that all we have is the baby and not the rubber ducky, the non-skid stickers, the layette, the tear free shampoo, and the diaper rash ointment that tend to be the objects of our concern. What this means, however, is somebody will have to give up his or her turn to be in charge. People conditioned by the status quo are rarely good change agents, and once we get into a position where we can make a difference we have been so indoctrinated by the system that we are ineffective at reformation. Which brings up a larger question, who is going to be the person willing to sacrifice so that transformation can occur? We in the church forget that “success” in Christian terms is defined by the cross. Something has to die so that it can be reborn in new and glorious ways. Here’s hoping and praying the church of now is willing to die to itself so that it can be reborn as the Next Church.          

Soli Deo Gloria