Wednesday, February 1, 2017

CHURCH: What are we in the middle of?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about church life in the US - particularly about church life in mainline protestant denominations like the one I belong to, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Almost every church-related activity I participate in stirs up memories. I think particularly of going to a Lutheran church in Summit, NJ, in the '60s and '70s.

Part of me measures today's church experiences against the yardstick of church during those growing-up years*. (*About a half a century ago. Yikes.)

Another part of me finds joy in today's church experiences for their own sake -- and even in the feeling that we might actually be creating a new thing together.

What are we in the middle of?

Sadao Watanabe, The Last Supper
I've started to wonder what "my" church -- the denomination I'm affiliated with -- will be like in ten years. It startles me to realize that the answer probably ought to have less to do with my "growing-up years" idea of church, and more to do with some newly-created thing.

I wonder about worship in new ways . . . and fellowship in new ways . . . and faith formation in new ways . . . and social justice in new ways . . . and evangelism in new ways . . . . Before long I realize that, in my imagination, I'm really just recycling a bunch of old ideas, perhaps with a bit of current affairs and/or exotic flair added.

Then it occurs to me that what church does is respond to life. So the answer to the question, "What will the newly-created thing be?" has something to do with the answer to the question, "What are we in the middle of?"

Put another way: the opportunity for the denomination lies in engaging with what our society is experiencing.  The more widespread, difficult, and amorphous that phenomenon is, the greater the likelihood that "it" is what church needs to engage with.

Centrifugal force: economic inequality

Sadao Watanabe, Lilies of the Field
My sense is that the growing economic inequality in US (and other) society is where church will find its calling more and more with each passing month and year.

A few notes:

* Economic inequality is readily apparent to a certain degree -- we care about "poverty" -- but is enormously underestimated by most people, and poorly understood by almost everybody. There was a small splash made in the last year or two on the subject of the growing (and structurally irremediable?) economic inequality in Western societies by Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Bernie Sanders' 2016 Democratic primary candidacy got some traction on the topic of economic inequality.

* Church communities are already inherently involved in dealing with economic equality hands-on, i.e. within congregations themselves. And yet there is almost limitless possibility to do new things in this dimension.

* Church communities are also involved in addressing economic inequality, through service and advocacy, beyond their own walls. Again, there is enormous scope to do new things in this dimension, as well.

The opportunity lies in the existence of a widespread/difficult/amorphous phenomenon which so far shows no signs of yielding to known approaches. It is tempting to see an analogy to the early Church, when the widespread/difficult/amorphous phenomenon was called the Roman Empire, and something new had to be created because the obvious approaches were not getting people anywhere.

Can church succeed?

Sadao Watanabe, Miracle of Loaves and Fishes
If we set our sights on something we already know church can succeed at, we're probably not thinking big enough. We will know we are considering the appropriate phenomenon when we realize, "This may not work."

Here's what I will be thinking about in the coming year:

* How does the Gospel witness equip church to respond to economic inequality that is massive and growing rapidly?

* What strengths and gifts do we, as church, have at our disposal as we face it?

* What might we, as church, be willing to give up in order to get it right?

* What's standing in our way?

It may not be possible to envision exactly what church will be like ten years from now. But it does seem likely that the broad outlines are close at hand, if we are willing to reach for them.

2017: Which Way for the Church? Anti-Racism? or Comfort?
Declaring Sanctuary, Changing Hearts and Minds
DECOLONIZE THIS: The ELCA's Doctrine of Discovery Challenge
KAIROS: The Moment You've Been Waiting For?

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