Archive for May 30, 2015

“Church” vs. “Faith Community”

Enough about churches that are dying. Let’s imagine something that lives, breathes, serves, makes a difference. Would we even call it “church”? The term seems tattered and torn after two millennia of use. Maybe the term “faith community” would convey fewer historical negatives. Whatever. Let’s not get hung up on names. Let’s imagine what it would actually be and do.

It would be God’s incarnate presence in human life. Not the only presence, but one that many people could enter into. Not so much an institution with structures, rules and layers of leadership, but rather a dynamic, ever-shifting community that gathered in various ways, ranging from small circles of friends to mass assemblies for special purposes.

It would look outward, unlike other human institutions that look inward. It would see people wanting to draw closer to God. It would see human needs such as grief and tragedy, hunger and hopelessness. It would see key moments in people’s lives, such as partnering and parenting. It would see the ways people hurt each other and the tendency of injustice to become systemic.

The community would have a bias toward action. Welcoming the stranger, providing care and food, supporting people in transition, working for justice. It would have as much organization as it needed for action and would resist the human temptation to concretize structure in order to allocate power.

This faith community would teach about God, not by formulating doctrines, but by telling the stories people are living with God. It would convey narrative, not law. It would draw on historic records such as Scripture, on more recent thinking and on discoveries being made in real time. It would encourage exploration and mutual respect, not right opinion and fighting. Because people are different, their words about God would be different.

The community would resist the normal human temptation to build facilities and to invest those facilities with unique character that might overshadow the people themselves. It would “travel light,” gathering wherever need and mission took it.

Credentials and training would matter far less than mutually recognized gifts of the Spirit. Though the world values power-based roles like leader, the faith community would value whatever ministries were needed at the moment, including leadership, but also including teaching, hospitality, prayer and discernment, as well as others. All would be valued.

Can you imagine all of this? It’s hard. We are accustomed to faith organizations that function more like worldly institutions, such as universities and banks. But something of this sort is how Jesus formed his first disciples. The key, I think, isn’t finding the perfect way of being and then formalizing it, but trusting God to show the way and remaining open and flexible to that way.

Much of the “dying” we worry about is the normal passing away of structures and ideas that no longer convey meaning. The big downtown church isn’t empty because church leaders failed or people were unappreciative. It’s empty because people are finding life elsewhere.

Imagining a faith community like this assumes an ability to start from scratch. That is no easy thing. Many are highly invested in maintaining what has been, not in seeking what could be. That number, however, gets smaller and smaller. Wise faith leaders — of all ages — will acknowledge the stress that occurs when the old passes away, but they won’t act to stop the passing away. Reinvigorating old ways isn’t a way forward.

The “Spiritual-but-not-Religious” Crowd

We have much to learn from the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd. A growing demographic (20% of the population in 2012), they are often the object of misunderstanding and pity among church members. Something along the lines of “I feel sorry for them! How can they get along without God? How can they get along without people to pray for them? What’s wrong with them?”

True, some spiritual-but-not-religious people are lone wolves. They have no spiritual community per se, just a sense within that there is More to Life than Meets the Eye. Others, however, are deeply embedded in community of every kind — unaware they should be missing us. They sense the transcendent in the ordinary, the Divine in the everyday.

Pastors have remarked that what these spiritual but not religious people are identifying as needs — community, people who care about each other, significance over success, a deep relationship with Something that is Bigger than Us — can all be provided by the church. If only they knew about the church, and would adapt a bit to it, they would find everything they are looking for!

Bottom line: We have this sense that if we can figure out what’s wrong with them, or what they’re missing, then we can get them “back.”

We need a whole new way of relating to the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. Instead of seeing them as missing what we are offering, we might we see them as offering what we are (or may be) missing. Here are three gifts from the spiritual-but-not religious crowd we can glean from them and perhaps incorporate into our congregation:

1. They are a living reminder of our roots. Every great moment in the Bible is defined by someone walking away from known reality. Abraham leaves his father and his kindred to follow God to a new land, sight unseen. Jacob wrestles with a divine figure which is part human, part angel. Moses serves an invisible god who identifies as Being itself. Ruth gives up her cultural identity to identify with her mother-in-law’s people. John the Baptist leads people away from their day-to-day lives out into the wilderness. Jesus himself ushers in the long-awaited, but previously unexperienced, kingdom. Just as these people walked away from known reality for something new, so too the spiritual-but-not-religious. Rather than see them as lacking something, consider that their spiritual journeying reflects the essence of Biblical stories.

2. They remind us of the value of experience over form. For the spiritual-but-not-religious, the direct experience of God is the goal, not doctrines or dogma which point the way to the experience. Jesus, while faithful to Judaism, experienced oneness with God. He even taught others that “The kingdom of heaven is within.” Why should we be surprised, then, when people discover direct access to the Holy, and prefer that over the form of religion?

3. They point to the convergence of science and spirituality. Quantum physics points to a conscious universe, and the deep interconnectedness of all forms of life. While some Christian believers are fighting over science and religion, the spiritual-but-not-religious are moving beyond duality by seeking how science and spirituality inform each other. This is cutting edge.

An interesting book along these lines that I recently read: The Science of God by Gerald L. Schroeder, a physicist and theologian. He shows how the Bible and Big Bang Theory are compatible.