Welcome to Big Old Goofy World . . . a place where I can share my thoughts, hopes, and dreams about this rock that we live on and call home.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Not Your Parent's Church . . . A Place to Begin

Remember the children's rhyme?  This is the church, this is its steeple, open the doors, and see all the people.  It was a simple little rhyme used to teach children about church and what church is suppose to be about--people.  That little rhyme has been floating around in my mind for a little over a week after I received a request to write some memories about my time as a pastor at a little rural church I served in Nebraska.  I was asked to share my memories because the church closed its doors as a church for the last time on December 19th, 2011.  After nearly a hundred years as a faithful witness to its community the church closed its doors as it had grown too small as a congregation.  My ministry in the history of that church was barely a blip on its timeline, but I was honored to be asked to share.

Well, this blog isn't about that little rural church shutting its doors.  This is not an exceptional story as it is happening more and more often in rural areas of our nation--little churches are closing their doors as fewer and fewer people live in rural areas.  This blog is not about the demise of rural churches or even rural communities . . . it is about the fact that the "church" is changing and in more ways than one, churches are shutting their doors at an alarming rate due to these changes.  The "church" is no longer the "church" of our grandparents or even our parents--the "church" is changing and it is changing quicker than most of us are comfortable with.  There is a revolution taking place and as Bob Dylan used to sing, "The times they are a changin'."

Having served as a minister for nearly 30 years I can honestly state that the "church" I serve in today is not the "church" I was sold when I entered the ministry.  A lot has changed--some for the good, some for the bad--at least in my estimation.  This movement of change has come in many names--the Emergent Church, the Missional Church, and Transformational, to name a few.  Whatever it is called it is change for those of us who are clinging onto the model of "church" we grew up with from our parents and grandparents.  And, change scares us--no one likes change, especially when he or she is not ready for change.  Gone are the days when the heyday of the "church" was focused on programs built within the church to attract people to their saving grace.  Gone are the days when the majority of the concern and focus was within the walls of the church for those who were "members"--the club model--while everyone else had to acclimate themselves into the membership.  Gone is much of the rote ritual of the past in which no one really knows why they are doing what they are doing other than "that's the way we've always done it."  Those seven words have often be called the last seven words of the church.  I started in one "church" and am now being confronted with another "church", and like many of my generation and older I can honestly say that it is scary to be confronted with such change.

Now this blog is not some scholarly or theologically significant argument one way or the other about this changing "church" for I am not particularly a scholar or a theologian--I more of a wise guy with a lot of questions willing to consider all sides of the question or issue.  The fact is that the "church" I was trained to serve, the "church" of my parents and grandparents, is no longer working for the world in which I live.  It is struggling and statistics show its struggles--the mainline denominations can't slow the flow out the back door to save their lives.  At this rate, someone once told me, the "church" as I know it will no longer exist by the time I reach retirement.  (Retirement, now that is debatable as to win that will happen!  With the current rate of economy and the government constantly raising the age to retire, it could be another 20 to 30 years before I retire.  I'll probably die before I get to retire.)  News like that kind makes one have to sit up and notice.

  No, this is not a blog arguing one way or another, but one that is honestly saying that God doesn't mind if I ask a few questions --actually, a lot of questions.  Isn't that a sound biblical practice--didn't the generations before us ask questions when they did not quite know where they were being led?  Sure sounds like it when they were wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years.  Sounds like it when they were sitting in captivity in a strange land wondering how in the world they ever got themselves into that predicament.  Sounds like it when the so-called "church" was just starting out with anybody and everybody expressing his or her opinion about what they thought Jesus meant.  In actuality this is not the first revolution the "church" has experienced--there have been many over the generations.  Why would any of us think that our present form--the form of our parents and grandparents--is the final, definitive form?  Shoot, I thought God wanted us to keep growing until we become what God wants us to become.  So, if it isn't working shouldn't we be asking questions about why and how--why doesn't it work?  How can we change it to make it work?  I don't know, that might be too simple and way too much common sense.

The Spirit blows wherever it wants . . . it leads wherever it wants . . . it is not stagnant or unmoving.  It is alive and pushing towards growth.  I know that the new model of "church" is one that wants to live in the Spirit of God and to be a presence in the world--not a presence in a building.  In this I find the change in the "church" exciting when it speaks of empowering people to follow God's will in their lives--not in a building or among a select group--for the good of the world in which they live their lives daily.  And, at the same time, I understand the necessary support that is found in a church--to love and support one another in the journey of faith.  This is found as people gather to praise God, break the bread, and pray together with one another each Sunday morning--it is community.  Community--a word I have always defined as "people gathered in their common unity."  The "common unity" is not in a building or program--it is not in a doctrine or ritual, it is in the love of God.  Jesus showed us the way.

The point of the children's rhyme is that it is the "people" that make the church--not the building, not the doctrine, not the rituals, but the people.  All of the people.  I doubt seriously that the many, many pictures that portray Jesus even come close to what Jesus really looked like--probably far from it.  I cannot say what Jesus looked liked, but . . . I have a theory.  The theory is simple and is based on the fact that the Bible tells us that we are all created in the image of God--all of us!  If this is true, I think that we should be able to take snap shots of all of humanity--from the beginning to now, slap them together in a wonderful mosaic and we would begin to see the image of Christ.  And, the "church" is meant to be the body of Christ in the world.  It is the people.

I don't have any of the answers, but I have a lot of questions.  I am sure that every one out there has a lot of questions.  Maybe we ought to sit down, break the bread, lift the cup, and have a conversation about what it means to be "church".  At least it is place to begin . . . here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people!

1 comment:

PaulBarbour said...

Most fascinating Rev John. Looks like I'm more than 20 years older than you. Is it illegal for such an old fart to be online? I was brung up in a liberal Methodist country church The L word meant something pretty different than it does today.

Clif Martin,
Paul Barbour or whoever I am today