By Marcy Wright, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
When asked by members of my church what class I am currently taking, I am often met with puzzled looks as I announce the title, “Post-Congregational Evangelism.” Stares. More stares. “What on earth is that?” I tell them that we are reading and discussing the new congregational reality of the 21st century, declining membership in mainline denominations, the rise of the digital culture and the phenomenon of “spiritual but not religious” and “nones”. I tell my church family that we are engaging in challenging readings and discussions that ask us as the body of Christ (them as well as me, I remind them) to consider how we prepare for the very real and likely possibility that church as we know it, and have known it all our lives, will go the way of the dinosaur, drifting ever closer to extinction. Grudgingly, most admit that they too have thought of that very question, as they consider our own congregations’ decrease in regular worship attendance, and our inability to attract young families and retain post-high school and college young adults—a group that is seen by many as the salvation of our congregation. I attempt to rally them by saying (quoting from the course syllabus) “If people are no longer interested in going to church, the church must find ways of going to the people.” This often brings more stares—not reflecting a lack of understanding, but more a lack of knowledge of “How will we do that?”
Of all the readings assigned for this class, author Kelly Bean’s book, How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church—The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community has so far been the most thought-provoking reading I’ve done so far. I recall the question posed by Dr. Vest last week in class that struck a chord and made reading Bean’s book even more relevant for me, “are you comfortable being a leader within a different model of church than what you have been used to?” Bean offers a challenging response. The title suggests that the “no church” model is a viable and for many, preferable option. The quote on the back of the book states, “God is moving. And just might be somewhere you haven’t looked…yet.” For many, God has left the building! And those many are following God right out the door.
Bean’s book details why so many are longing for and finding really Christian fellowship and community outside the walls of the church, and the list includes the usual suspects, harsh leadership styles, theology that isn’t always congruent with the real lives people lead, and political stances that appear to marginalize some populations in our society. Bean further suggests that the biggest change for many is they discover that they can “be church” rather than just “go to church”, which brings their lives and their faith into greater harmony. While Bean insists that she would not want to imagine a world without a visible church, she does offer that it is time for Christians to “re-examine our understanding of church in light of the increasing number of non-goers in the Western world.” Bean quotes Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, who reminds us what the church is really all about, “It’s true that the church did not officially start until the Day of Pentecost, but since the church is based on the person and work of Christ, it really began with Jesus. He is the one who is ‘calling out’ people who will call upon him for salvation.” “The church…exists to join God in God’s self-giving for the sake of the world.”
Bean goes on to detail ways that non-church goers embody this alternative meaning of church, despite not being connected to the familiar “container” of a traditional church structure. She suggests that lack of a building does not mean lack of spiritual practice, and lifts up intentional models of “carrying Christ with us,” including simply “taking the time to behold those we encounter throughout our day.” Her most potent example of Christian community outside the walls of traditional church comes in her discussion of the Third Saturday Community of which Bean was an initial leader. The Third Saturday Community features fellowship among potluck meals, shared leadership in organizing and leading worship and a building of relationships that illuminated God’s presence in and among those gathered. It also featured elements of Scripture reading and practical activities that offered participants a chance to live out their faith. (Bean 135-136) That sounds very much like the scene in Acts 2: 42-47 that we meditated on during our first class:
“42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
Bean’s book offers creative and concrete examples of being church without going to church, and has helped me expand my imagination of what the true “church” community can look like, particularly in light of the significant changes our congregations currently face. I wonder though, if I will be able to articulate this vision—as a congregational leader, practicing theologian, and community witness—to folks like those in my congregations, who are reluctant to let go of what always has been. I confess that I was well into my 30’s before I actually stopped feeling guilty when I missed a Sunday worship–my mother’s refrain of “if you didn’t go to church, you shouldn’t go anywhere” was ever present in my ears, and on those Sunday’s I couldn’t quite make it, I often had internal debates about when was a good time to leave the house for an errand, reluctant for someone to see me out—“missed you in church this morning Marcy”—the expected greeting if I was caught. While Bean has done a great deal to dispel the notion attendance at a service every Sunday in a church building is an automatic path to relationship with God, it is still a strong notion to shake and one that many people will continue to cling to for as long as they have breath. I am convinced an either/or mentality will be doomed to fail. I am encouraged by new models of ministry and embrace them whole heartedly but continue to wonder wistfully about what will happen to those “containers” and their loyalists if the trend of non-church attendance continues.
Reading Bean, I’m reminded of the Matthew 18: 20 scripture, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” The critical task is helping our congregations understand that it doesn’t have to be the physical space they’ve grown accustomed to.