Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
An interesting place to start this discussion of key questions for the church, is something very practical, yet rife with challenging problems. The local church is a community of real people that know each other to varying degrees and join together with something in common in terms of their religious beliefs or interests. By definition, it is a community. And when we consider its purpose, the reason why it exists, the reason why people will participate in it, it should provide a community to those on the journey of following Jesus and an open invitation for others to join this journey. The church should be largely about people and should appeal to people, so that they will join it and actively participate. As Christians many of our core beliefs revolve around love and right treatment of others, so our community is a place where love should be given and received, where we should put our beliefs into practice by treating each other right. On a very practical level, the local church is where the concepts of being a Christian become reality for us, a part of the regular rhythm of our lives. Abstract concepts acted out in social situations, in group activities, in discussions of right and wrong. Further, the local church community interacts with the world through its message, activities and projects; and these activities only happen through participation of people in the church.
When I talk to people about the church and what’s so great about it, when I listen to what we say about ourselves, what I hear is that the church is a great place for community. A family, We should join it because it is a wonderful place to be. That’s where we will find people we know and love, perhaps one of the few social groups we participate in outside of home and work.
So what’s the problem? What’s the challenge I am referring to? To put it simply, it is hard to be a community. It is all too easy and natural for a social organization to forget that it’s fundamentally about people and become something else, for example when we focus too much on the success of the organization. For instance, do we care more about how many people attended our activity and whether it stayed on budget, or do we care more about how well we considered the needs and interests of the people that attended? How do we keep the people focus in everything we do? The organized institution is just a practical necessity, a way of properly functioning as a large social group, but its success is measured by how well it can get out of the way and let people feel at home and get on with relating to each other.
We all know that this can be difficult. It is so easy to feel lost or isolated in a social setting. It is so easy for the community to seem inadequate at being what it’s supposed to be. How do we avoid this? This is my first key question, which I pose and answer in this chapter:
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
By this I mean, how can the church keep its focus on people. How can it avoid too much focus on its own success as a spiritually-oriented organization, an institute of religion, a religious institution? How can our shared spirituality create a common bond without creating an institutional structure?
By this question I don’t mean that religion is a problem in itself, but can create problems if that religion is focused on the organized institution rather than the community members.
As the church we are a spiritual community, bound by a common thread of faith and experience. The institution of the church, the organized entity that has a name and a budget, has no spiritual value apart from the people it represents. How do we as believers keep the focus on being a community and not get distracted by the institution? How do we not get stressed out by budget problems, structural decisions, leadership changes, and daily operations? How do we avoid focusing on minutia that seem all too shallow in the big picture? How do we orient all of our plans and invest all of our resources back into the community of people that we represent? How do we keep the organization out of the way? How do we liberate our religion from the institution organized to keep it running, and see that religion practiced and played out daily in the lives of the people that make up the organization?
Hopefully I have restated and clarified this question enough different ways that the reader will understand what question I am trying to ask here.
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
Just so you know, I’m not shy about answering my own questions. I appreciate opinions and a good discussion. I want to put a solid answer out there to get things started.
For each question listed in the Introduction, first I will start by offering an answer from the teachings of Jesus. What do I think Jesus taught that fundamentally answers my question? What focus did he have that clarifies our focus as we carry on his work? What concepts did he offer to help us understand our place in the universe? After I pose a short answer from the teachings of Jesus, next I’ll answer the question in today’s time. I’ll dig a bit deeper into application of the question and answer for the modern local church, proposing new concepts that would help us in practice. Finally, I’ll go into much more depth through a Bible study related to the question and answer. In this chapter I’ll go through the gospel of Luke and investigate how Jesus taught us about community.
To me Jesus had a pervasive message and theme to his teachings, which directly address the purpose of community. He called the future church “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” in the Gospels. How do I think that Jesus would answer my question?
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
Jesus answers: The kingdom of God is here
Jesus would point us to build God’s kingdom instead of man’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is the place on Earth where everything that Jesus taught is put into practice. Jesus brought that kingdom. He started it. We are continuing it. Jesus also taught about the problems that can occur in kingdoms of man and how we can avoid those problems through transformation of our hearts, minds and actions. To me, the kingdom of God is the right answer. It is a properly functioning community! The kingdom of man is the thing we must work to avoid, as it will get in the way of the God’s kingdom if we let it.
Now, let’s explore what this answer means in practical terms for the church in the 21st century.
How can the kingdom of God play out in today’s local church so that it can function as a community? When we come together, we need to somehow orient our attention and activities toward the other people in the room. If we intentionally pay attention to one another, we can share our experiences with one another and nurture community. On the other hand, if we only incidentally notice others because we are busy performing our function in the church, we may be missing the point. How can we reorient toward people?
A Place to Share
What other models do we have today of how humans can come together in meaningful interactive ways? What other place do we have where we can belong and share, but where anyone feels welcome? What other place do we have that nurtures us spiritually while lifting our spirits through the love of others? Humans need this. This is why we needed churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship; to be nurtured spiritually while connecting with others. Other types of human institutions do not exist for this purpose, but the church is such a place. As the church we should honor and respect all religions as fulfilling this purpose to nurture people spiritually while providing community. It is a fundamental human need and a vital part of society worldwide. I’ll address this in other chapters, but for now I’ll just talk about Christianity.
Besides the church, other places where humans can belong and share may include their family, the workplace and other social groups. Families are one of the best sources of spiritual nurture for some people, and can be a microcosm of the church, living as the body of Christ. Unfortunately many of us who want that environment at home don’t have it. Those of us that do have it should fully utilize this valuable asset we have in life, to share our spiritual lives with the people closest to us.
Places where anyone is welcome include towns, malls, stores, bars, restaurants, any public venue. People can come and go, and feel at home around other people, but there is little interaction. People would love to go somewhere where “everyone knows your name”, where they can belong, where there friends also go. If that kind of place exists, people will gravitate to it. Like the TV-show bar Cheers[™], a public space can also foster community if people decide to come together there.
Volunteer organizations are also a good example. They welcome and need people to join them for a good cause, and people who work together can form a close camaraderie as they fulfil some service to community.
One interesting example of a human creation which functions simply to bring together people into a community is social media, like Facebook[™]. People connect with one another just because they want to share and be shared with! They can create a space for their friends. They can create a page for their ideas to be shared publically or just with friends. Truly, people long for this kind of connection, judging by the sweeping success of social media. Many people find spiritual connections on Facebook, on their own pages, their friends pages, and by joining groups that have a spiritual focus.
People can and should create their own spiritual connections in the world they live in, such as in their family, circle of friends, and on social media. But still, we need to work together in a cooperative community with some organization in order for the community to grow and thrive and to have the greatest impact. As Christians we need the church, where we can combine belonging and sharing with spiritual connection and spiritual nurture; only the church fits the bill.
However, even this is just the beginning. As followers of Jesus we were gifted with a mission and a message that Jesus set into motion. Jesus started his ministry with the message: “Repent -- for the kingdom of God is now here!”. And he wrapped up his ministry with the mission to expand that kingdom to the ends of the Earth! I’ll talk a lot about the nature of that kingdom. But what I propose is that this is where the sparks will fly -- when you combine community and kingdom -- just like combining gunpowder and a match! I want to explore how the church should be both a real community of folks, and it can be the kingdom of God living in spirit and truth as the extension of Jesus’ ministry, spreading to the ends of the Earth and for all time.
One huge challenge in trying to provide community is that we need to work within our social and cultural norms to create a sharing environment. We should recognize the ways that people can be comfortable sharing with one another, establishing trust and being willing to open up parts of their lives to one another. Certainly the spiritual connection can be a point of common sharing and interest, but most people will be hesitant to participate instead of spectate. They might be willing to “go to church” but balk at going to a party, where there is no agenda except to socialize. Humans are eager to connect with others, as demonstrated by the success of Facebook. If we give the right forum where people will find it socially appropriate and comfortable to connect with one another, then they will be very happy to be there! If we create something that forces social engagement in a way that raises people’s defenses they will want to resist, and probably run away and never come back. Given this natural resistance, the church can very easily fail to bring connections. The church may compromise and just give people a place to safely sit disconnected as spectators. When we invite people to participate, we have to be aware that even if they want to share, there will be social shyness and cultural and personality limits on how a person can share. People may stay at the perimeter with people all around even as starving for connection, just too hesitant to connect with others. Forcing them is not an answer. We just have to recognize that even if people say that they don’t want to connect but would vote for easy and comfortable on any given day, it is because people are often afraid to jump in and connect with people they don’t know and trust. Likely they would welcome such a connection.
In practical terms, as the church we can learn from ways that are successful in other settings in establishing connections, bringing trust within the natural bounds of social comfort. We have to create space for sharing. We have to turn our gaze to the other people in the room, care about them, open up to them, and not be satisfied until we have found ways to foster true community in the church.
Welcome to All
On the other hand, true community is a mix of ingredients with tremendous power. When you nurture people and give them what they need to thrive and grow, helping each other in every way, and you give them a common mission and message, what can happen? Unfortunately if misdirected this energy can lead to isolationism and protectionism as we focus inward on preserving what we have, thereby jeopardizing our very purpose in being here. We can become a family, a close-knit community, but in the process develop higher barriers to entry.
To avoid this very natural tendency we have to roll out the welcome mat! We have to be very deliberate and intentional. We have to recognize that the thing that makes us a thriving community is the open welcome of all people. The boundaries, or barriers to entry, should be lowered in such a way as to keep any new person feeling welcome. We should also be careful to harness the power of community to point in a positive direction -- any group that focuses inward too much has a tendency to spin into a negative cycle of complaining, mistrust, fighting, cliques, and getting caught up in shallow, irrelevant details. The community that spends more time looking outward will maintain a healthy identity, appreciating what we have and how it fits into the community around us. We will ask what we can do to make a difference, rather than just remind ourselves of how we are different. How can we do this? By recognizing that we are both the community and kingdom of God, a place of both sharing and welcome.
Today’s church, as an broad institution and as a vast set of individual local churches, shows us that we can create something with a spiritual focus, that people will be willing to attend for weekly meetings. People have been doing it since the time of Christ. But why do they come? Will they keep coming?
Social connection is a mixed motivation for people. I know that people will go to church to see people they care about, but people will also go to church hoping to just blend in. People prefer not to be forced to connect with others they don’t know, except possibly to shake hands and share their name. Offering a social time, like a coffee break, will often result in people that don’t know anyone standing around looking uncomfortable, or looking for someone they already know. Think of times when you’ve gone to a conference for work, a wedding reception, or even a birthday party, where you found yourself in a room with no one to talk to, no one to connect to. Occasionally these events do a good job of creating more comfort and connection by “breaking the ice” in a fun way that invite people to interact with each other. You can probably also recall awkward moments in these events where the social interaction was too forced and you just wanted to run away, at least at first.
Unfortunately today’s model of the modern church may not survive into the 22nd century, as culture changes and people’s needs change. The willingness of people to attend a meeting as a spectator to hear about connecting spiritually to God and to one another seems to be decreasing. If people’s social and cultural need to “go to church” decreases in popularity, then the kingdom will dwindle due simply to social and cultural forces. We can’t depend on that fulfill to God’s plan on Earth. We need to innovate here - how can we act in community, with a spiritual focus that appreciates our humanity? How can we successfully bring people together, when people will run away from the contact they crave?
Providing a Mission
GIving people a mission may not be enough either. If people come together to hear about a mission, but feel no connection to one another, the mission, message and purpose of assembling will seem unrealistic. We may think: how can a bunch of people that meet together without connecting or doing anything, accomplish anything for God? How could we function as a “kingdom” without “community”? Yet when we join forces with others in true community, we are empowered to act, encouraged by one another, and ready to partner with each other to do things we love that also make a difference in our community. In my eyes, the only way to be the kingdom of God is through functional, strong community.
What about the spiritual requirement people may feel for “going to church”, will that keep the community together? When people realize that God does not necessarily require them to “go to church” to find his presence, will they still want to go? Will people go simply because they recognize their need for spiritual connection with others? Perhaps today many people that attend church are going because they long for spiritual connection with others. Others may enjoy a feeling of safety from anonymity as a spectator with few social pressures. Some long to be in a close social group where they know lots of people. The current model of church services on Sundays seems to be working for people with different needs.
But is it right to also claim that people need to be there because that’s where God’s presence is (i.e., in the midst of believers) and that if they don’t come they are failing at their spiritual calling (and will fall away from their relationship with God, falling into evil, or other such messages)? I’m a big proponent of truth in advertising: we should say why we are really here (to be the community and kingdom of God) and put things into perspective. This will help avoid the shallowness of institutionalism, adding true purpose to meeting together. We need to teach and remind people of what the kingdom of God is really about so they can participate, in a way that they are comfortable with as they grow spiritually and socially to a point where they are ready.
We don’t find God by coming to church but through the sharing that happens there. Individually, we find God through our spirit. As a group, we also find God through community. It’s true that God is present with us, and when people gather to honor God, God is there and will value and honor the intention we have to welcome him. God is always present - but God always seems to be thrilled when he is invited and honored as a guest. We should not consider God as a silent spectator, but rather than an invited participant. We must welcome God, so that his participation is welcome and his voice is heard. In order words we must welcome God so that we will recognize him when he shows up and listen to him when he has something to say. We should meet together, in the presence of God and honoring God in our local community. In fact I kind of like the phrase “the community and kingdom of God”. It identifies that we are a community, and the kingdom of God, but it also suggests that God is also a key participant in the community. It’s God’s community too! So, we should actively invite God to our gathering, to be a part of our community.
We need to work on our messaging. When you have a party, a reception, a dinner, or a meeting of any kind, what do you do? You start by appreciating the fact that the people have joined together, thanking them and acknowledging that they came to participate in this event. Secondly you will state in some way the purpose of that meeting, if not already obvious from other context clues. Statements like “we are here to celebrate John’s birthday! Welcome everyone and I really am glad you came!” are not always necessary if you can just convey the welcome and purpose of the party by playing music, having decorations and a cake visible, and just greeting people with “hi” and a big smile when they come to the door. But naturally, if you came to the door and those non-verbal cues were not used, and you were just quietly invited to come and sit on a couch and look at the wall and one another awkwardly, you would wonder “did I come to the right place? Is this really a birthday party”? Well, when we come together as the church (in a meeting, event or “service”) we should also state our purpose in meeting. What is it? Is the purpose to sit or stand in a theater and observe what happens on a stage as someone prays, plays music, or talks? Or is the purpose to get our “marching orders” and then go do the thing we showed up for? The cynic might even think the only purpose in showing up was to be asked to contribute money and think -- is the church service simply a fundraiser? What else am I here for? Am I here because God told me to come? Well, why did God want me here?
Truth in advertising: when we state the purpose of meeting, do we misstate it? Does the message come across that you are here so that you can please God, accomplishing a requirement of your faith so that you can remain in good standing? Does the message come across that God’s presence is here, in the midst of believers, so you are approaching God’s presence by being here, and you are getting a spiritual “fill up” from being around God so that you can go for another week on the fuel before running out? Do we state that we are getting in our quota of prayers and worship phrases enough to keep us close to God for one week? Do we connect to others simply by being in the same room while we all fulfil this weekly duty? Quite simply, do we even come across as saying to people who attend a church event, as saying “We are glad you are here, because it is your duty to be here. See you next week and every week”. Or do we state our purpose as being a community, here for people rather than for pleasing God? The Bible says we need each other.
How Do We Achieve It?
At this point you may be objecting either one way or the other to the question posed in this chapter. On one hand, you might say this is not an issue. As a church we already provide sufficient community, sharing and welcome, so let’s move on to the next question. We are already doing it right. OR, you might say what I’m proposing is not really possible -- people don’t want to share intimately with one another so we shouldn’t force them. The church should remain largely a spectator experience, because no matter how hard you push people to participate they just don’t want to.
How do you view this question? Is the church already a community to the extent that it should be? Is it possible to be that?
To both objections I would like to suggest that we could consider and envision something completely new and different compared to our current view of how the modern church should operate. We could create something. If we did what could it look like? If we started from nothing, how would we build the church to be a functional community that is also the kingdom of God?
By creating something new and letting it grow organically its own time, it would not threaten those that enjoy the status quo or the existing institution, but it would give an exciting alternative to those that want something different. In time, if the model is successful, the new church will grow as a revival of spirituality and community, bringing people back to church that weren’t going. Can we envision something different that could do this? Even if we are happy with the current institution of the church, such a thought experiment is useful to see how we can continue to improve.
To achieve this we need to go back to the concept of the kingdom of God and re-imagine what it looks like in postmodern times. How can we move away from the structured institution, and create intentional community?
First of all, we could create a church without walls. A church should not have walls -- barriers for isolation and protection, with purpose and membership derived from exclusion. Physical walls may be convenient, or they may get in the way. Figurative walls around our community to protect it and maintain its identity are counter-productive for creating intentional community. As a church we should abandon our walls. The church is a group of people, not a place with walls even though the organized meetings take place where walls are standing. The building we meet in should be irrelevant on a spiritual and social level, merely functional as physical shelter. The early church met in people’s homes for instance.
Secondly, the church is not a schedule. We could make a clear distinction between the church meetings or events, and the church itself. How does the church function, outside of its meetings and events? It’s helpful not to mix up the two concepts. The church is a community (a noun, a thing), and the local, grassroots, instance of the kingdom of God (a noun, a thing). And the church meets (a verb, an action) together regularly to function (a verb, an action) as both community and kingdom. I can describe a church meeting or event as participation in the community and kingdom. But there are other ways to participate. The members of the church can do so many other things besides meeting together, which are also participation in the community and kingdom. In fact it seems limiting to define the actions of the community, mainly through how, when or where it meets. This concepts leads nicely to the idea of a church without walls. The church without walls is a community, and its actions may take many forms, including meetings and events.
Thirdly, it could have an open organic organization. What form should the community and kingdom of God take? How should we be organized, and how should our actions (including meetings and events) be orchestrated? Should we keep the current model which is overly dependent on walls, buildings and institutional structure, or can we create something new and different, a church without walls? What I propose is a loosely organized grassroots movement that lets go of the dependence on buildings and hierarchical structure with predominant focus on weekly large-group meetings, and yet achieves both community and kingdom more authentically, realistically, intentionally and practically than it can with the old structure. We can create a new structure that is open and organic. The new structure will depend heavily on social networking and technology. It will provide a myriad of gatherings and activities throughout the community. It would be an open source, group-moderated, technology-based organization, which uses social structures that are natural and easy for people to participate in, such as meetings in people’s home, community centers and pizza joints, and fully utilizes social media and the power of the internet to connect people together in an organized manner.
Sure, if we grow too large we may need some staff, but these staff should be paid to administrate the organization and functions of the church, not be paid to be in charge of it. In fact, web administrators and code developers may be key staff roles in this type of church! Most of the roles in the church without walls should be volunteer positions. This removes the need to raise a lot of money to keep the lights on. This way we can spend 90% of our effort on being both the community and kingdom of God, and only 10% on holding our group together in an organized manner, so that everyone can stay informed, and plans and activities are easy for everyone to participate in.
When I first thought of this proposal I thought it sounded so unique, even radical. But if I look around I see so much of society organized in this manner. While the economy is driven by businesses and jobs, and our infrastructure is driven by government, much of our culture and the kinder, gentler parts of society are driven by the arts, nonprofits, clubs, social groups, ministries, and volunteer projects which are primarily volunteer organizations. Some religious organizations, such as student ministries, are also organized this way - they may have a headquarters and a regional office, but the individual community groups are fully operated by volunteers. Most modern churches have small groups that meet in people’s homes for Bible study and sharing. We could re-orient the entire church to function like this. Intentionally create community and at the same time dispense with the wall-oriented, schedule-oriented, hierarchical institution.
How does this new proposal relate to the community and kingdom of God? Is an open church closer to what Jesus had in mind? The original question of this chapter, is how can we organize ourselves as a community instead of a religion? So much of what Jesus spoke adamantly about was the inherent corruption in the religious system, and how it undermined the true nature of the relationship between God and people. Jesus spoke of a kingdom which grew organically from the tiniest seed (the mustard seed) into a mighty tree, a kingdom of light for the world, a kingdom of salt to give pervasive flavor to humankind (and also preserve it!), a kingdom of bread for the hungry, and shelter for the poor. I love the model of the kingdom as a tree growing up and outward from Jesus, who is the author of Grace, and expanding to all spaces and times, including to me on one of the branches. You can considered it an “upside down kingdom”, where the largest part expands upward and outward. On the other hand, the religious institution model is monolithic and inverted. It grows from a large infrastructure based, using the metaphor of a building or tower, trying to reach God through human effort. It is a kingdom built by human hands. We can build and build such a tower and only end of aggravating God, because we are left with something built and designed by humans in an attempt to please God, rather than designed by and operated by God. You might certainly debate whether I am right about this distinction, between the kingdom built by human hands, and the upside-down kingdom built by God, and it is just a metaphor. However what I am pointing out was also pointed out by Jesus numerous times and is intuitively understood by all of us -- building a large, structured kingdom with human hands is highly likely to fail to address God’s fundamental purposes in establishing the kingdom in the first place, a kingdom that is based on love, community, and organic growth.
I am certainly not trying to offend religious folks, and I am very grateful for how the structure of Christianity allowed it to grow, thrive, and be carried to me and my generation. I just feel that in our postmodern times, we have perhaps reached the limits of monolithic growth, and we are seeing the traps and blemishes, the isolationism and inflexibility, the inhumanity of organized structure thwarting the very mission we care so much about.
Instead we need to let go of this structure and expand like wildfire in a world that is eager and hungry for authentic relationship and partnership, ready for co-ownership of our future, and wanting to get involved if given the right opportunity. The same world is mistrusting of expensive structures where the money is controlled at the top, and where membership is defined restrictively. The more we try to protect what we have as the church in the old system, the more we will isolate ourselves and create an elitist culture of exclusion. The more we talk about and focus on money to keep the lights on or build new walls, the more we divert our gaze from the task of loving people both inside and outside of these walls.
Can we try something new? I suggest that based on this model of an open collaborative community, we consider all options:
- we strengthen current community-related ministries in existing churches and organizations,
- we launch new pioneering ministries outside of today’s church that will have a broad appeal in today’s world, and
- we consider creating a new type of church altogether: the Open Church.