We live in complex and polarizing times. Our institutions are declining and our sense of job security and family safety is on heighten alert. Our neighborhoods are growing in diversity with a multiplicity of cultural expressions that challenge our assumptions and codes of conduct. And we are beginning to question lots of things – truth, gender identities, race relations, the economy, politics, education, and global warming — which leads us to a generalized fear and anxiety with just about everything. This has become our new norm — the background noise of life in the 21st century.
My particular dance with all of this is in the church. Often I have heard, “The church is just not relevant anymore, even for many of those who still make it a habit of going to worship and engaging in church activities. We have lost our sense of purpose.” As I travel around the country as a church consultant it has now become the norm for me to hear stories of people and pastors who are on the verge of being done with the entire church enterprise. Not because they don’t care, but precisely because they do.
This week alone two pastors confessed to me, “I so look forward to retiring because then I will be able to do the kind of community and faith formation work that I am passionate about. I am so tired of propping up the institutional church.” These pastors have spent the last 10-15 years managing decline in a system that is resistant to change. These leaders have had to walk the fine line of not getting too far ahead of the system because they, too, need a paycheck and job security. They, too, want to be loved and respected. They are tired of feeling the pressures of dwindling finances, the loss of gifted leaders and judicatories that are addicted to one model of church that brings money into the corporate buckets.
But what would happen if we envisioned a different way of being? What if we actually believed in the power of Pentecost to make all things new? Could we dare risk it all for the sake of the good news of love and peace for the world?What would it take to actually believe in that power and live out of that witness?
There is a story in the book of Acts about the early Jesus followers who were innovating Christian community on the fly after the spirit winds of Pentecost blew open their hearts in a mysterious atunement to God. We are told that they lived in community and “had all things together.”
Wow, normally I look at this passage and distance myself from it. Monks can do this, but not me. However, as I ponder this metaphor it helps me to understand what that unfolding kingdom looks like. What does it take to have all things together? What kind of community does that look like?
I think of a community that has a deep trust and resonance with one another. It is a spiritual space of safety and security so that our souls can come out to play. It is creative, generative, and open-hearted even in the midst of conflict. It is a community where we are supported to become fully who God has called us to be – created in God’s image with gifts and talents to share. It is a place where we can come into our wholeness. The Hebrew word for this is Shalom – a word that encompasses much more than peace. It means health, wholeness, forgiveness, grace and love. It is the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
This is what I long for: to co-create a community of such trust and grace that we live into the fullness of shalom — as if we have all things together.
Could each of us in our own little way begin to live this out? Could we invite folks that want nothing to do with church to join us in this experiment? Could we let go of institutional metrics and hail Mary passes to save that which doesn’t have the capacity to change? I think we can be chaplains to the decline while at the same time experimenting with a new ways of being church.
I find it fascinating that Jesus’ last words to his disciples weren’t, “Go and change the institution.” Jesus intuitively knew that change comes from the margins – from small groups of people committed to a countercultural way of shalom in the world. It comes from our hearts being strangely warmed by the spirit of Pentecost and then practicing this opened-hearted stance together in all things.
Why church? Why now?
We need only to look at our world to know that we need this way of Jesus now more than ever. So what are we waiting for? In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “If not now, then when?”