How We Should Do Church — Old First E-pistle: 05.06.16

Two takeaways from the clergy retreat that are not just important for me, but for us:

1) In our contemporary situation, the dominant cultural narrative has been overturned and replaced multiple competing stories that don’t offer much hierarchy of importance. In our digital age, there’s an almost endless panoply of different stories (and tv channels) one has to pick and choose from in order to find her or his own way through.

2) The church would do well to get out of the reactive institutional phase it tends to find itself in, guarding its traditions defensively in hope of recovering its founding phase that was more inventive as the institution emerged.

What’s this all mean and why is it important to us?

First, it suggests not only that the biblical narrative, one of the anchors of all the church does (another one is immediate, personal religious experience, but even that is often informed by the bible stories), is often overwhelmed by its competition, can no longer count on any cultural pre-eminence, or be assured of wide or intimate familiarity. Going a step further, the discounting of or disconnection with the biblical narrative may well mean that people outside the church — or even those in our pews! — do not understand or know the biblical platform well enough to effectively use it to interpret the meaning of what we do and say as church.

If this is correct, no wonder church often feels irrelevant, empty and boring to people. Without the backstory or myths that inspire and animate who we are and what we do, church devolves to empty rituals and rote repetitions without any connection to the stories of our personal lives.

What if we made biblical literacy a major goal of our community? So that we who are part of Old First and those we welcome into this community would come to better know the biblical narrative… at least well enough to inform what we do as Christians on Sunday morning and through the rest of the week? What if because we are Christians, those biblical stories (alongside of other stories of meaning) were reflexively one of the personal references that we used to make sense of our lives?

There might be some uneasiness, as “a biblical focus” is often the territory or purview of our more conservative Christian sisters and brothers. But being the church without needing to teach the bible only works if people at large in our time and place are biblically literate. And maybe the progressive church would be doing its job better if it was really, systematically teaching the bible… that we take seriously as a source of grace and life, just not literally. What if our folks really knew their bible, and had the hermeneutical tools for interpreting and applying it in their daily lives.

And what if we came up with some more intentional ways to encourage you to make the connections between the biblical stories we were coming to know and the varied stories of our own lives? Walter Brueggemann, the UCC Hebrew Scripture scholar, has pointed out: “For most of our people, God is no longer a primary actor in the story of their lives.”  Another way of saying this is that too often, church as we do it these days, trains us only to look for God in the places we expect to see God, rather than where God might surprise us.

I was thinking, for example, even though we cannot all be here at church for the Good Friday Vigil from 12 noon to 3 pm, next year, perhaps we can come up with a way to be “watching and waiting” together from a distance, using some technology. Imagine the power of tying Christ’s faithfulness to us, even his death, to the struggles we face in our daily lives.

Likewise, we might not be able to gather the whole church for Maundy Thursday, but all of our people will have dinner that night. They could be invited to include communion in that meal. Or perhaps, even reflect further on how Jesus is always at the table with them, even when they are in a mode of misunderstanding, denying or betraying him.

Or perhaps this summer, I might try to end each sermon with two questions that call the worshipers to make specific connections between the Scripture story or message of the day and their daily lives. And then invent some way to appropriately share those connections.

For instance, this Sunday, I am preaching on how the Ascension stories mean, among other things, that even in his leaving the world of our daily lives, Jesus is reaffirming that our lives in all their detail and even smallness matter. What if, at the end of such a sermon, you were asked to consider what and how and why you question the value of your own lives? And next, what stories from the Bible or experiences of the church counteract those fears or doubts?

Second, when organizations and institutions realize they are in decline, they often shift into a defensive mode. They begin to guard what has worked in the past, as if it is the sacred treasure house to see them through tighter times or even the prize itself whose possession and protection is an end in itself.

What if instead, the church acknowledged that we are in decline and serving fewer people because what used to work no longer does — the world around us and the people we are to serve have changed too much?  In such a situation, rather than insisting on how things have always been done or guarding historical inheritance, what if we shifted back to our first institutional phase, when we were emergent and finding a way in a world that was new to us — like the German immigrants off the boat in a new land in 1727 or our foreparents back down at a refurbished 4th and Race in 1967? New worlds, new environments that demanded an inventiveness and openness, and put a premium on inventiveness and relationships.

I think that we were better about being like that in my first 3 years at Old First, when we were charged with doing Covenant Ministry. Remember how we assigned every leadership group, alongside of accomplishing the mission goals it was organized around, to also work deliberately and intentionally on evolving the traditions of our church so they might be more visible, accessible, welcoming and meaningful to the people we thought we were called to serve? While we hardly ushered in any radical revolutions, I think we did effect or recreate in an almost 300 year old institution a renewing era of experimentation.

For now, I’m going to leave you with this. I often do not know the answer to questions which face the church these days. No one does. There are no easy answers. No cookie cutter solutions. But if we resist the temptation to grasp too tightly what we know, and instead, begin really listening to one another and working towards whatever, albeit tentative, partial answers, or at least new attempts we can fashion, we might be walking better in the ways of faith for a time such as this.

See you in church,

Michael