Friday, December 5, 2014

Which (Brethren) church to come?

The day brings...
(With apologies to Peter Blum for riffing on the title of his book...)

Stan Noffsinger, the top executive of my denomination, the Church of the Brethren, asked an interesting question on Facebook this week, and one that stimulated some interesting responses. He asked: "What is your vision for the Church of the Brethren in 2065?" and invited people to cast their visions.

On the one hand, it's kind of ridiculous to ask people to think that far ahead into the future. No one can do it. On the other hand, though, it's a good exercise at thinking creatively and imagining things as they could be down the road. So here's what I said:
A church that can educate and equip all its members to take more seriously its "priesthood of all believers" commitment. A radical commitment to place. A church that can say "No" to a world hellbent on speed, ease, self-seeking profit and pleasure, and violence - and "Yes" to the Prince of Peace and his way, truth, and life.

An institutional structure and processes that are adaptive, lightweight, networked, creative, nurturing, and representative.

Oh, and a way more global church with global representative governance. A church for the farm town, the city, the barrio, the plains, the savannahs, the deserts, the jungles, and to the ends of the earth in all its multi-splendored beauty.
Here's what was sitting behind some of my remarks...

Break it down now

Educating and equipping all members - Brethren supposedly belong to the low church "priesthood of all believers" tradition, and yet have utilized seminary-trained, professional clergy for a number of generations now. Congregations have become accustomed to having the "Bible answers expert" and "spirituality and life therapist" person on staff (often the same person). But this model is already beginning to crumble around us. The cost of theological education and ministerial formation (like higher education, generally) continues to skyrocket while income for families remains stagnant at best. This means that 1) fewer people can afford to go to seminary, and 2) congregations will have a harder time paying ministers. (I'll say more on the economics Monday...)

I think a church to come will have to have better ways of educating and equipping more of its membership. Seminary for the masses, for both cultivating the life of the mind and formation in discipleship.

A radical commitment to place - Wendell Berry. 'Nuff said. Okay, a few words: If the US is a society that has become rootless, transient, and disconnected from the earth upon which we walk and derive our sustenance (and I think it has), a church to come should have concrete ways of saying "No" to that. Professional ministry has tended to be one way of unwittingly perpetuating the societal tendency toward rootlessness and transience. Pastors may have committed to the people in a place (for a time), but not the place...and not for any meaningful period of time.

Whether we're in the city or the country or wherever, a church to come will have to learn to stay put and think generationally and geographically, and encourage our faith communities to follow suit.

An institutional structure and processes... - Bureaucracy, hierarchy, centralization, and a management class are the organizing principles of the Industrial Revolution that became self-evident for the way the rest of society organized itself through the 20th century. For better and worse, the 21st century will see a fading (though by no means a disappearance) of these ways of organizing, and the rise of ways and forms that resemble the current technological revolution: the Internet, which is massively decentralized and nodal rather than hierarchical.  In the age of the iPhone and "Like" button, affiliation is transient and shifts rapidly. Loyalty is an ephemeral and fleeting commodity.

This is not all good. Christianity is a pledge of allegiance to the Lamb who was slain, and formation in discipleship to him should train our bodies (and collective body) to be sturdily faithful to our Lord. But the institutional manifestations of that Body will need to be far less top-heavy. "The bigger they are..."

A more global church - The Church of the Brethren, Inc. is a legal, organizational entity in the United States of America. While there have been successful sister churches started outside the US (especially in Nigeria, which is currently under heavy persecution), we remain a US-centric church institution.

A church to come should be more global in terms of not only its membership, but also of its governance. If Brethren really want to be a global body, it can't follow the patron/client model, which smacks far too much of colonialism.

The interesting thing here, though, is that would my denomination move toward a more global fellowship, many in the US might be surprised (and perhaps shocked or offended) at the ways in which this would shift the terms of debate for some of our most deep-seated attitudes and practices (and our sacred cow conflicts). My sense is this would illuminate some ideological idols that Brethren, whose imaginations are framed by US society and culture, have taken for granted. We would, therefore, have some demons to exorcise by becoming more globally inclusive.

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