A Tale of Two Perspectives and a Moment in Church History: Old First E-pistle 01.10.13

A Tale of Two Perspectives and a Moment in Church History: Old First E-pistle 01.10.13

One of the Elders sent me the article linked here, “Building Congregations Around Art Galleries and Cafes as Spirituality Wanes.” This morning, I received an invitation from our sister UCC congregation in Fort Lauderdale for The Opening of the Phantom Gallery and Cafe (admittedly only a once a month event, not a constant space-sharing use of their property).

Congregations are housing art galleries or coffee bars to connect with people who have little interest in what they think church per se offers. The alternative use of their space becomes, these congregations hope, like the fragrance or sweet nectar flowers use to attract butterflies, bees and other insects.

There’s a secondary advantage also: church program or worship space doesn’t lie fallow so much of the week. Their alternative uses mean that the congregation gets more use out of its real estate. And hopefully some exposure — people noticing in their new proximity to church that, surprisingly, it has something to offer them.

I believe the Elder wanted to make sure I saw the article for both reasons: 1) because I am very interested in how we get church on the map or radar screen of people who have pretty much dismissed organized religion out of hand, and 2) because at Old First, we wonder if we couldn’t be utilizing our space more than we are.

I shared the article on-line to pass the info. further, and to get people thinking. Sometimes, really interesting conversations get started. This time, no one commented on the post, but two people wrote me directly about the article.

The first person read the article three times and could only feel sad. “Galleries and cafes are good,” but this reader worried that if the church accommodates culture too much, it won’t be able to offer any prophetic critique or transform that culture.

It’s an important concern. It also suggests this person has a “thick hermeneutic of suspicion,” or, in layperson’s terms, believes the church often falls far short of its prophetic calling.

But that reading of these congregations’ attempts comes in part, I think, from how the article is not well written. It fails to include any information about why these congregations want to reach people in the first place. What difference does the church wish to make in people’s lives?

While I expect I’d disagree with how more conservative congregations in the article understand their theological purpose, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they have in mind something to offer people that they believe will improve their lives (rather than just seeking more bodies to maintain their institution).

But my correspondent is right: there’s a tricky, perhaps adverse relationship between the church needing to be conversant in the cultural idiom of the people it hopes to reach and giving up the liminal position from which it can be prophetic vis a vis the shortcomings of its time and place.

The second person to comment loved the article, enough to suggest jokingly that we should remove the pews, level the floor in our sanctuary and make it a multi-purpose cultural space. (Breathe, everyone! You can relax: there is too much downhill slope from back to front to allow our sanctuary to be used for much except seating facing the pulpit!)

I took on the first person’s perspective to ask the second person, “positioning the church firmly in the middle of the world as we know it, is there a danger that the church looses its edge, its ability to be prophetic and transformative?

The second person recognized that the article was mostly about more conservative congregations. But came up with a different response, concluding that as a church, we don’t need to worry so much about what other churches are doing. We do better to concentrate on ourselves and our ministry and mission.

Tactically, I think that’s an important point too. While we can learn from other churches, even those we disagree with, we probably want sidestep defining ourselves in the negative — by who we are not or what we disagree with.

The second reader trusts that more important than what a church intends for the results of its contact with people, the real difference it makes comes of the people who it sends forth to live out their Christian faith. I agree completely: the most far-ranging change church can effect is not what happens with people when they are within the four walls of the church, but how they live the rest of their lives.

Still I believe there is a difference between a church sending people to win over more adherents of their specific understanding of the faith, and church whose people are charged with changing social conditions that cause unnecessary suffering.

My point is not to side with either person. Or really to share my own opinions.

My hope is that we might recognize the interesting time in church history where we find ourselves. And to appreciate that we have a whole range of different and important perspectives on church, faithfulness, service and life. And that we insist that none of us is close enough to the whole truth to risk not listening to people who understand the situation different. To do the hard work God’s counting on from us, we need each other.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and wrestle through all this: the our mission purpose, church history, its current situation, and how we feel called to affect the world around us. Let’s commit to deep listening where we see things differently. Because the richer we will all become, and the more faithful we can be together as the church and as we live our faith out in our individual lives…

See you in church,

Michael