Today’s blog comes to us from reader, John Backman (bio below). John and I have had several conversations about Emerging Church and we seem to be of the same mind on this topic. I appreciate the way John continues to remind me of the things of value in the traditional church and things not to be left behind as we allow space for the Church that is trying to be born! John, thank you for keeping me grounded and humble!
Where Will the Future Church Meet? Not in Church
My wife and I raise guinea pigs. That makes us part of an obscure hobby with maybe 1,000 other folks across the U.S. We meet at shows, often in barns, wearing jeans and sweats sprinkled with animal hair.
A hobby this small has its own dynamic, and it’s much like a family. We attract colorful eccentrics and needy people. We gossip, fight, and disagree about silly things. We may be “related,” but we are very different. We also rally around one another in times of crisis.
And in most cases, we have found a place where we can be fully ourselves. That makes our hobby a sort of living laboratory for how to see and embrace people as they are, warts and all.
In other words, without even thinking about it, we are living into Jesus’ vision of community.
According to some churches I have attended, it’s not supposed to be this way. The local church, they say, is supposed to be our family. We guinea pig folk may be practicing Christian community in a way, but not within a Christian community. Right idea, wrong place.
But maybe it’s not the wrong place. Maybe it’s a glimpse of where the Spirit wants to lead the church of the future.
For centuries, church was the center of the local community. Even into modern times, it was expected that Catholics attend Mass in their neighborhood parish. Some evangelicals quote the Letter to the Hebrews (“not neglecting to meet together,” Hebrews 10:25) to tout the church’s role in the center of the believer’s life. Yes, churches were called to outreach, but the weight of the spiritual life was in the sanctuary, and the community that worshiped there.
Times have changed. So many people have abandoned church that this model is fast becoming irrelevant to the wider world. Moreover, few churches meet the standard of community that I find in my motley group of guinea pig people. How can the Church continue to speak from a model that no longer works?
Maybe it shifts the model. Maybe the Church gives up its role as the center of the Christian life—and becomes a facilitator of the Christian life.
It might look like this: for Christians, the world becomes our living laboratory, the place where we spend most of our time, the place where we strive to live the ideals of Jesus. The Church, meanwhile, continues to share its treasure trove of ideas, practices, and values to facilitate our progress.
Actually, this sounds a lot like the Jesus of the gospels. He spent nearly all his time in the public square: on the streets, with tax collectors and other disreputables, in people’s homes, and in the courts of the Temple, healing and teaching. When he needed sustenance, he retreated to the hills for prayer, and then back he went into the crowds. Yes, he interacted with his fellow rabbis, but mostly to challenge them, not to fellowship with them.
This would be a massive shift. The Church would no longer be a nexus of power, but rather a facilitator of service. It would stand on the sidelines, the way a head coach does. The game happens on the field; the coach simply gives the players the necessary resources and guidance to play well. It is an important role, but not the central role.
With the Church’s facilitation, people could immerse themselves in the world more fully oriented (and better equipped) to love all, accept the outcast, be vulnerable, and commit to others in a way that does not end with the first falling out. People living like this could do a world of good. The treasures of the Church would be used in service to humanity. Christendom would inform individuals and cultures rather than trying to control them.
What would happen if the Church followed this call? No one can say for sure. But it would be a worthy venture indeed.
About the Author
John Backman, the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart(SkyLight Paths Publishing), writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, he has written articles for numerous faith-based publications, both progressive and conservative.John currently serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, and he has presented on dialogue-related topics at academic conferences and faith gatherings.