Put together a charismatic preacher, a warm environment where people care about each other, and a lively music team and it’s still possible to have a viable small church ministry in the heartland. People looking for an experience of church appreciate those things and they certainly rate high on my list of desirable qualities. Two problems, though: Is that all that a church ought to be in the United Methodist tradition? And what about those people who aren’t looking for an experience of church?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking a good preacher and a caring congregation. They’re just not ends in themselves.
When a church is at its best, it is drawing me beyond where I am into an experience of the kingdom of God. It is opening up space within which I can be challenged to grow and change. It is not merely hitting all of my nostalgia buttons and reminding me of warm times in the past when I have felt close to God, it is engaging me in a network of vital relationships that call me to accountability. It is not confirming my assumptions about the world, but opening me up to new ways of looking at it.
Churches that do this may have a dynamic worship service, but they’re likely to be quirky and a little unsettling, since they will raise deep, authentic questions.
They will not be beholden to expectations about the ‘right’ way to do things. They will always be asking “Why are we doing what we do?” And if the answer doesn’t conform to the mission, they won’t do it.
Which brings me to the other problem: How about the vast majority of people in our land for whom the church of our 1950s dreams no longer hold any attraction?
If we are clinging to an attractional model for people who aren’t attracted, what are we doing?
Recently I was looking at demographic data for my own Eastern Shore of Virginia. You might assume that this is a region that has more affinity for church and faith than in other places, but, according to researchers, less than 20% here say that their faith is really important to them. (Statewide the average is about 20%.) Only about 20% feel it is important to attend church at all.
Doing church in this new age is going to have to be fed by what happens ‘inside,’ but it is also going to have to begin ‘outside’ where we develop relationships in proximity. The living room of your house or the table at the diner may be the most important space in the church of today as we gather with persons to begin to know them. It models the incarnational love of God in Jesus, who came into the world to experience it in all of its forms. Preachers and choirs jazz me, but loving God and loving our neighbors may just begin by being a neighbor.