Three things the church needs to embrace now
During almost two full years of pandemic social restrictions and the resultant paradigmatic shifts we’ve experienced the past 24 months, I’ve had the unexpected opportunity not only to launch an alternative online faith community, but also to learn from innovative leaders who are reimagining what the church can be for future generations.
A recent article by Christian leadership guru Carey Nieuwhof lists five false assumptions many churches are working under when trying to imagine their future.
For what it’s worth, Nieuwhof rightly identifies the faulty presumptions that what has worked before will work again, that the church building will remain the center of ministry, that online ministry doesn’t need to be taken seriously, that the future will be linear and predictable, and that asking pastors and leaders to work harder will solve all the church’s problems.
But there’s a deeper reason why old assumptions and paradigms don’t work anymore and will never work again, and it’s far less structural than Nieuwhof outlines.
I’ve had dozens if not hundreds of conversations with leaders—lay and clergy—who are trying to figure out how to keep their churches from slipping into oblivion as it becomes more and more apparent that our tried-and-true ways of doing things simply aren’t working anymore.
I study trends. I listen to stories of people for whom church as we know it has become boring and irrelevant at best and downright harmful and traumatic at worst.
From ingrained supremacy narratives borne out of white male privilege, to stunting theological exploration and growth, to the overwhelming pull of institutional preservation, the church has some embedded habits that more and more people are finding to be deal-breakers.
Personally, I believe the church will survive. But I also believe that what we call “church” is going to look radically different to coming generations.
Here are three key concepts I think the church needs to embrace in order to live into the transformative opportunity that’s before us:
1) Embrace diversity
Yeah, I know, we already talk about diversity a lot.
Unfortunately, though, that’s about all we do…talk about it.
We still cling to too many inherited practices that insist on imagining God as a male being (and also presumptively as white) without regard to the traumatic effects of toxic masculinity many of our members and neighbors have suffered.
We lazily refuse to confront our implicit biases and the structural and systemic harm they cause to marginalized and oppressed people groups.
We arrogantly expect others to conform to our way of doing things out of the belief that what’s been good for us is good for everyone.
While proximity probably dictates that there will always be a level of racial/cultural homogeneity in many of our congregations, we can still focus our efforts on antiracism, justice, and liberation.
Embracing diversity doesn’t just mean welcoming people who look different than you.
It means sacrificing your privilege for the benefit of others.
2) Embrace deconstruction
Recently, a video has been making the rounds showing the lead singer of a popular Christian rock band saying that the Church needs to “go to war” against deconstruction.
It’s a popular sentiment among conservative evangelicals that deconstruction is the enemy of Christianity and that its growing influence is harmful to the faith.
The reality, however, is that deconstruction is not only a natural part of faith development, but a desirable one.
That’s a problem for churches where privilege, power, and control are foundational premises.
It’s also a problem for leaders who have not honestly and vulnerably faced their own doubts, questions, and inherited/implicit biases, but who instead remain stuck in primitive, unchallenged theological assumptions.
The reasons that the church is experiencing declines in both participation and influence are myriad, complex, and nuanced.
But the inability not only to give people space to work through deconstruction, but to embrace leaders who themselves are deconstructing and finding an even deeper and more authentic experience of faith and the divine, is certainly a major impediment.
Here at Accidental Tomatoes, we talk a lot about the stages of faith development posited by James Fowler and how so many people rarely move beyond stage 3 (of 7) because that’s the stage at which institutions hold the most influence.
The key for the Church to survive, at least in my own sometimes-less-than-humble opinion, is not only to allow people to experience deconstruction, but to embrace institutional deconstruction as well.
Which leads to my final point:
3) Embrace the needs of your neighbors over your own
The founders of the American conservation organization Trout Unlimited launched their movement in 1959 with the simple idea that if they wanted better trout fishing for themselves and generations to come, their primary focus should be on the needs of the fish over the needs of the anglers.
“Take care of the fish, and the fishing will take care of itself” became a manifesto that launched one of the most successful conservation movements of the past 60+ years.
Too often our churches have focused on the fishing—evangelism, member recruitment, and church growth—without enough thought about what’s good for the fish.
But what we fail to realize is that when we fill our nets we kill everything we caught.
A seminary professor of mine once defined “grace” as “love devoid of self-interest.”
In other words, the most authentic forms of love can never come with an agenda.
Ironically, when churches risk their own survival by caring for the people around them without conditions or expectations, they find that they become more vibrant, more alive, and more integrated into the communities they serve.
Take care of people first, and the church will take care of itself.
Those who lose their life will find it
A famous Jewish rabbi once said that the only way to find life is to lose it.
Embracing diversity, deconstruction, and the needs of our neighbors are certainly not the only measures churches need to take in these challenging times.
But they are all keys to reinventing what has too often become a stagnant institution buried under the weight of trying to maintain relevance and influence.
The church as we know it, the one which has stubbornly clung to its traditions, biases, and power dynamics, is for all intents and purposes already dead.
But churches that truly foster communities of shalom—of equity, justice, and liberation—might just be where the Beloved Community is waiting to be birthed.