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Thursday, October 20, 2016

What might the Church look like without a steeple, without a door?

The churches where I live are experiencing highs and lows. Most have decreasing congregations, and whether they are so-called Bible-believing churches or more liberal mainline, it doesn't seem to matter. The Southern Baptists have for the past few years come into New England with an influx of leadership and money and are attempting a large church planting effort. Hundreds of small churches are being seeded here in New England. But these are pitiful efforts (just speaking honestly). They involve grabbing some Bible believer and trying to make a pastor out of him (it is always a man). The congregation might just be his family. A cynic could be forgiven, I think, for suggesting these plantings are an effort to show the hand of God on some spreadsheet handed around a table back home in the more fertile fields of the South: See! The Hand of the Lord is at work in New England!

New Englanders have voted with their feet. They do not like going to church. Not on Sunday, not on Wednesday, not on any day of the week ending in "y." Though they might still have some vague reverence for the Bible they do not read it. They do not know its contents (that might be a good thing as it does contain some bits that are contradictory and less than what most consider "Godly" acts).

Is it time to double down and thump our dusty Bibles? Or has that time simply passed? I say that the time has passed.

There has been some nascent efforts to bring a virtual church to the masses. Most have failed. Today's pastors just do not think it Biblical. They see the Church as having to be physical, having to be a place where physical bodies congregate and where the sacraments can be administered, such as baptism. They are stuck in the sola scriptura mode of thinking. They have made an idol out of the Bible; it has them in shackles.

It is my opinion the time has passed for the physical Church. If the Church is to continue it has to be re-made, totally; it must not even resemble the Church of the past hundred or so years. It must be spic-span-tastically re-done. For the Church to evolve it has to contain the following characteristics:

  • Relegate the Bible to archive status;
  • Create different models for different types of people;
  • Use the internet to create a network, local and international, of friendships and co-workers;
  • Rely on local models for local face-to-face interactions;
  • Become flexible in terms of meeting places and ideologies and times.

When creating that list I could not decide on what the future Church needed as far as leadership structure was concerned. Top-down? Bottom-up? Who would be the spiritual leader and how would it be decided? Who would structure the workings of the church? How would this work itself out? Not sure. So I leave that for another day.

The central focus is on the second bullet point (I will skip the first for now as it is the most controversial, but for a peek at how some see the Bible in a modern light see the blog: https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/how-to-follow-jesus/ ) Different models for different types of people is a key point. In thinking about this I wanted to describe within the context of a metaphor how this might work. I've settled on the image of a forest.

We have a scene before us, from a bird's eye view, a large tract of wooded area, softwoods, hardwoods, streams with gullies and hilltops. Depending on the type of person you are, you can view this forest differently. There will be searchers, educators, poet-artists, builders, philosophers, biologists, climatologists ('ologists of all stripes). To strip the classification down to a core grouping, let's say they are:

  1. Educators
  2. Builders
  3. Poets
The Educators are within our forest church to teach and to learn. They point out the different meanings inherent within the areas of the forest, make analogies, and offer references to past teachings that further the understanding of the whole.

The Builders take the material of the forest and build new things, new buildings, new structures, that hold together and offer shelter and safety and opportunities to grow.

The Poets reveal the hidden dimensions of the self and how the self inside the forest is not really a self, but everyone; they take us by the hand and show us hidden paths that seem to be not paths leading outside us but paths leading within.

The map of this church/forest is not the Bible: at least, for us in the New Church it isn't; we don't always use the Bible for our map. Sometimes we do. Some of us choose a canon within a canon, like Luther did, and use that to show that our New Church is much like the old, or at least not quite as dissimilar as some say it is. But it is rarely used as the only map. Rather we live in the forest, and find our way by experience, by living there, by noticing things, by being aware.

But how is this Christian? Mustn't we still use the Gospel as our base? Well, yes. But the Gospel comes from the Spirit, through Jesus. We can see the Gospel in Buddha--yes, yes we can. We can see the Gospel in Lao-Tsu. We can see the Gospel in every nook and chink of space and time. But don't we have to emphasize that others are wrong? That others don't knock at the correct door? No. We actually don't. Not if Jesus is in fact the Christ, we don't. So stop worrying so much over it. Let it go. Let the question remain, and the answer pass away like a morning mist.

What if instead of studying the Bible on Wednesday nights, churches studied Dostoevsky? Or Melville? Or Goya? Or Mozart? In art we are shown ourselves, as we are and as we might be. We see the forest for the trees. And instead of studying Dostoevsky in some building which needs electricity and heat we meet in a Google Circle? Or a Facebook group? What if instead of a tithe we funded a Go Fund Me page for people in need, some we know, others we don't? What if instead of meeting on Sundays listening to a sermon on Jonah we met to repaint the homeless shelter? Or to repair someone's roof? We use the materials in our forest to build something and in so doing we create relationships and meaning in our lives.

What if some of us walked through our forest and discovered hidden meanings of who we are and what we were meant to be? The forest begins to teach us something of ourselves and our relationship not only to each other but to the world of nature. Some might see comparisons to what the Buddha taught, or Lao-Tsu.

And what if instead of handing someone a tract and asking if they know Jesus, we sent a Facebook friend request and shared an article about some bill making its way through a Congressional subcommittee (okay, not everyone is as interested in the machinations of Congress as I am).

I tend to think each Circle Church (tentative name) would evolve in its membership through time. Some would become almost evangelical in nature, its members wanting a traditional discussion of the Bible. Most would shunt the Old Testament aside and other than some mention of Jesus' words and a key teaching by Paul they would tend to the here and the now. Questions would arise. And that would be a good thing.

Questions are key for the new Circle Church: answers are to be avoided, at least hard and fast answers. We need to become familiar with living in the question. With answers we tend to pretend to know; and with this pretense we become hardened, and we fail to feel the "living waters" flowing over us. The trick is to be soft, squishy soft, to feel that sense of wonder that comes when you realize how little you know.

The danger is that we point fingers at others more answer oriented, those who see the Bible as a fundamental, as the literal Word. We can argue--we will lose. We will lose because you cannot, and should not, destroy someone's sense of mystery. The Bible, though some will see it as becoming an idol, is the touchstone for many. Leave it. Answer others with a question if need be. A question furthers the journey onward and leaves a space for others to come to you.

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