By Amanda Pine, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Ah, the church.
Those who attend churches are likely to think of “church” as the building where they park at 10:56 AM on Sunday morning just in time to make the 11:00 AM service. They are likely to think of programs within the church, the service hours their teenagers might acquire there, and their fondness for the Pastor.
Which is why, a few Sundays ago, when I explained to a little girl entering into the sanctuary that Pentecost was the church’s birthday, she stared at me in confusion. Her dad said, “Oh really? I thought we just had the 50th anniversary celebration. What year are we celebrating then?” As I fastened a paper crown with a flame on it to his child’s head, I explained that when the Holy Spirit touched those gathered in the Lord’s name on Pentecost, the church was erected in each one of us. He too stared at me, walked into the sanctuary with his daughter, and I wandered off to make sure that the photo booth we set up for the occasion was still functional. Looking back, I can understand their confusion.
Kelly Bean, author of How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, describes her (and others’) growing dissatisfaction with the organization of the institution of Church, and the shift to pursue God outside of the traditional church model. Contrary to the conclusions that might be drawn from the book title, Bean acknowledges the value that churches hold. She uses her book as a platform to explore the growing “spiritual but not religious,” contingent, and offers a few models for what church-outside-of-church might look like. She also acknowledges that such models might not work for everyone. They do, as proven by the stories related in the book, work for some people.
I was struck, as I sat on the beach reading this text, by how small our expectations of the church are. We, as ministry leaders, have become comfortable running our churches like businesses. We are comfortable having debates about whether or not there should be flags in the sanctuary, what kind of coffee brand to buy in bulk for coffee hour on Sunday morning, and how many hymns to stick in the service. Parish ministry, it occurred to me, has become much more of a customer service profession than a spiritual guidance profession.
In my Post-Congregational Evangelism class, we discussed whether or not those tasked with ministry in the world of non-goers, like Kelly Bean, should obtain theological education. If ministry can be done anywhere, how much do you really need to be trained? My classmates related touching stories of the value that a theological education has had for them and stories of friends who did not attend seminary but are quality ministry practitioners, but the question still remained. If we are moving from a congregational church, to an expression of God’s grace that is much larger than our original conception of “church,” what should theological education look like? For that matter, what does the church look like?
Well, my friends, take heart: the church is all around us. Bean says: “…We who choose to follow Jesus are each called to urge one another on to love and good deed and to be church.” So yes, there is a place for theologically educated ministry professionals, non-theologically trained ministry professionals, goers, and non-goers. The church, like God, is bigger than our imaginations. We must adapt our ministry practices to be big as well.