How will we save our churches? Should we?
Like many other clergy and theological educators, I have thought a lot about the first question and not nearly enough about the second.
Membership in mainline Protestant churches, as so many realize, has been declining steadily since the 1970s; many congregations have closed. That trend has accelerated in some regions, even among more conservative and Evangelical churches, which paints an equally bleak future for free-standing seminaries. Graduate-level theological education itself seems vaguely quaint to many, and to others woefully out of synch with a rapidly changing world. (See this analysis from a seminary professor.)
We suffer from no dearth of ideas and programs to reverse all these trends. But I’m still haunted by that second question – should we?
I’m haunted even more by something I heard the late biblical theologian Walter Wink say some years ago. He said it to a gathering of clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. This is what he said: “Whenever an institution devotes more resources to its own survival than to its mission, that institution has become demonic.”
I certainly don’t consider Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley “demonic,” which has remained a small mission for each of its 135 years and has faced more than a few moments of possible closure in that history. Yet the congregation has met those moments of anxiety best when it worried less about getting more members in the pews and focused more on how to address the needs of the neighborhood in which those pews sit.
Good Shepherd helps me to remember that the mission of the Church is not over – because the Church has never had a mission. God, however, does have a mission, expressed in various ways: to gather all peoples on the Holy Mountain where they learn war no more (Isaiah 2:1-4); to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19); and to ensure life in abundance for all (John 10:10) by dissolving the social barriers that divide us (Galatians 3:28) in a city where all tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:14).
The question today (as it has always been) is not whether churches will survive but how Christian communities can participate better and more fully in God’s own mission of reconciling love and transformative grace.
After hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Tulane University decided not to rebuild. The university decided instead to re-invent itself for the sake of rebuilding New Orleans. “Faculty and staff lend their expertise” to create an educational opportunity for students to engage in the “largest urban renewal project ever undertaken in the United States.” The broader mission of the school derives from that vision: to equip graduates to do that same work in their own communities around the country and the world.
Here’s a thought experiment: Consider the last 100 years as a century-long socio-political hurricane in Western society. In the wake of that devastation, the Church decides not to rebuild but to re-invent itself as a networked hub of spiritual leadership for social transformation. Clergy would still preach, preside over sacraments, and provide pastoral care in this vision. They would do all this, however, not for the sake of making churches but for the sake of remaking society – a world where all can thrive and flourish.
Can church-making serve the kind of change-making the world needs today? That question, it seems to me, could channel institutional anxiety into constructive energy for renewing Christian witness and ministry.
That energy has been percolating for a number of years now. It has inspired some Christians to embrace what Phyllis Tickle has been chronicling so diligently: Emergent Christianity. (See also Emergent Village as well as something a tad edgier here and Darkwood Brew.) A lot of not-explicitly-Christian-or-particularly-religious people have tapped into that energy, too. Some of these are social entrepreneurs or social innovators committed to social change for good (See the Social Capital Markets conference and its newly created people of faith track as well as the pioneering work of Ashoka in higher education.)
Bringing together those worlds of emerging Christian witness and social innovation could catalyze exactly what the world needs – not more institutions but a diverse movement of spiritual renewal and social transformation.
That very possibility has seized the institutional imagination of Pacific School of Religion, the seminary where I teach in Berkeley. A new strategic vision, programming initiatives, compelling partnerships – all of this will unfold in this academic year and has already begun with a cohort of “Changemaker Fellows.”
I’m convinced that theological ideas and spiritual practice play an indispensable role in social transformation. I believe we still need churches and seminaries to provide those resources for leadership. The question all of us need to address much more collaboratively, creatively, and constructively is why, and then of course, how.