Camping Out

While airing my views on churchly things over the last months, I've also been inwardly reflecting on what my idea of a New Church would look like. Knowing that whatever forms and formulas we might create to renew and re-form the Church will inevitably be the work of human beings, I suspect that some of my hopes are unattainable, at least in this world! Yet it may be okay to dream them anyway and to explore what a realistic version of my "perfect" Church could be.

So, this post is a beginning--but only a beginning--to the process of describing a new way of being the People of God Who Walk in the Way of Jesus. I've used that last phrase intentionally, because I believe that the less we use the word "church," the more freed up we can be to imagine something new. And, coincidentally, it echoes what the first followers of Christ were called--those who follow The Way. (I'd like to take up the idea of The Way in another post because it, too, can be a loaded concept, but for now I want to continue with my original direction.)

My first dream for this re-formed community would be that it claims no particular edifice as its location or identity. Having buildings, in my experience, has been one of the greatest energy and resource draining factors in the life of the Christian movement. Their beauty is certainly a testament to the human spirit's ability and desire to express its response to God through visual creativity. Yet as history has rolled on and the human spirit has come to seek a less confining venue for its need and desire to connect with The Holy, our buildings become beautiful but expensive balls and chains around our feet. The weight of them tugs heavily at our efforts to walk in the Way. We have become seduced into believing that building and maintaining them is an expression of good stewardship. And the seduction doesn't end there. Its powerful attraction beckons us to marry our buildings and even be willing to die as viable communities rather than divorce them.

In The Nomadic Church, Bill Easum and Pete Theodore write, "According to the U.S. Census Bureau, $7.3 billion [that's $7,300,000,000] was spent on religious construction in 2000." They go on to say that today "it costs between five hundred thousand and a million dollars to plant a church in the traditional way!" And that's only to put the buildings up. Let's not even go in the direction of how much it costs for yearly maintenance on those buildings erected in 2000 and all the thousands of other religious constructions that have existed for hundreds of years. It's impossible, as well, to measure the cost in lost ministry opportunities and the price we pay in human angst as a once-thriving Christian community watches itself go down a black hole, struggling to survive while pouring all its resources into a building that sucks them up like a giant sponge that never reaches capacity. Nor do we want to go in the direction of contemplating what the implications of "owning" property and buildings has had on the current situation in The Episcopal Church.

Are permanent gathering places really necessary for the People Who Walk in the Way? The Biblical models of God's gathered communities doesn't particularly defend this thought. Yes, there was the Temple and there were synagogues. Yet Jesus, in whose way we presumably walk, was an itinerate preacher. Gospel stories imply that he visited those places occasionally. But the Temple was eventually destroyed and I don't think Jesus would have wept over that or suggested that people throw lots of money into building it again or maintaining its upkeep. I even recall a story in which he was angry enough to throw furniture around in that edifice over its fundraising activities. If, as we keep telling our children, the Church is not the building but the people, then why are our budgets always top-heavy on the Buildings and Property items?

I feel the larger picture we glean from Biblical models is that the authentic community of those who walk in the ways of God is a community on the move. We may sojourn together from time to time (in fact the word parish comes from the Greek word for those who sojourn together), but sojourning and taking up permanent residence are not the same thing. To sojourn is to rest temporarily between parts of a journey. We don't need a permanent dwelling for that. A tent, or a storefront or a schoolroom or someone's home will do.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. . .They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13b-16)

Are we, the People Who Walk in the Way, willing to set out on the next leg of this journey, not knowing where we are to go? Willing to live in tents and be strangers in the land? Always aware that the life of those who are on this Way is a moveable feast?


Theological Garage Sale

At a Lenten program this week the comment was made that about every 500 years we human beings have a need to churn everything up, especially in matters of faith, theology, religion, church, or whatever. It was Bishop Mark Dyer who originally compared this activity to a theological garage sale, getting rid of the stuff we no longer want or that isn't serving a useful purpose, so that we can make space for renewal and new growth.

It's been about 500 years since the historical period we call The Reformation. Mention the word reformation and we start thinking of Martin Luther, indulgences, documents nailed to church doors and general mayhem in ecclesiastical circles. One group is collecting items for a giant yard sale and the other group is defending the attic door, declaring that all its contents are sacred and must be kept until death do us part. And there may even be a third group, which I often eye wistfully, who just want to create a bonfire of the whole business and start over. We could all stand around the blaze, holding hands and singing nostalgic songs of how life used to be. But eventually the warmth would die out and we'd have to figure out what to do with the ashes and, even more importantly, what to put in their place.

So, all in all, I guess the garage sale isn't a bad idea. And as long as we're going to do some serious housecleaning, it may be a good time to think about why all this stuff was so important to us in the first place. The elephant with the clock in its stomach is a no-brainer—we only kept it because Aunt Martha gave it to us and now she's gone to her reward and we don't have to bring it out every time she comes to visit. Kind of like the bishop's chair at one parish I served. It was not exactly a thing of beauty, far from comfortable to sit in, and it took three or four brawny people to lug it from the back of the church to the front when the Bishop was coming. Eventually, it was decided to just leave it in the back, taking up significant space in the narthex, and use a decent-looking but much more comfortable and portable chair on visitation day. A good garage sale decision, as far as it went, except the old chair still hung around, oozing ugliness all over the narthex.

We Episcopalians are famous for these kinds of decisions. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is a great example. We were afraid of losing people if we did away completely with the 1928 liturgies, so we kept them somewhat intact, but added a bunch of contemporary ones because, theologically and linguistically, they were more in tune with the times. And what we ended up with was a tool so schizophrenic and user unfriendly that many, if not most, parishes these days don't even use it because it's too intimidating for both Episcopalians and people who seek out the Episcopal Church from other backgrounds. And we lost people anyway.

Decisions about what to keep and what to put out on the curb are always difficult. My fear about what's happening right now in the Church is that in order to keep the attic from being divested of its ancient treasures, we're willing to put people out in the yard because there isn’t room for them and they're expendable.