Monday, July 07, 2008
The American church
I don't write many posts like this but this one has just been stirring. If you didn't notice the church in America is changing. If I can generalize there seems to be two camps.
The first is the institutional or traditional churches that you can find in droves all across the landscape. The Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, churches with a paid staff and weekly worship services on Sundays.
The second is emerging/Emergent/missional/organic/house churches. I know these aren't all the same but I'm going to lump them all together. A lot of these churches have denominational roots but they aren't traditional because they meet in third spaces, houses, don't have paid "professional" pastors, are organized around outreach, etc.
So for me, and a lot of peers in Seminary or preparing to enter the ministry, we are faced with this question among several. What type of church should I work in? I am drawn to the second group and there is a lot of buzz around this camp. A good deal of my education is from these leaders and I read/write/study in their stream. But I do not believe, as some say, that the institutional church is irrelevant and needs to go. Recently I have had people tell me to not even consider working in a church like this.
Look I agree that there are abuses of power, failures in leadership, weak discipleship, and monotonous worship services in the traditional churches. I think a lot of ways these churches operate needs to change. But using a cliche, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
No one can tell me that every institutional church needs to all the sudden take the form of a emerging/Emergent church. Actually I can't think of anything that would be worse. We need to remember context, context, context.
A lot of emerging/Emergent churches have their shape because of their location. For example, in the city you can have a church that meets in a coffee shop and does a lot of social outreach to the homeless. The church uses the coffee shop space to house worship services, art showings, poetry, concerts. There are so many people, and so many diverse people in the city it thrives. The space is also used to house the homeless, give out free food, and provide counseling for a lot of people who can't afford it.
However, in the suburbs, (it is still possible but more difficult) that church might be redundant because of location. The way the suburbs are spread out means that homeless people might not be able to access a coffee shop as easily. Moreover, there might not be as many homeless people around them to necessitate such a strong ministry focus. In the burbs a lot of people maybe aren't looking for a "3rd place" to gather ever evening that does social activities. The pace of their life and the space of their personal living quarters means that they don't want to drive out every night or have other commitments.
What both churches need to do is to look at the needs in their neighborhood/context/location and be faithful. I do think that a lot of things about the traditional church need to change. I would agree that in the future more and more tradional churches are going to take the shape of emerging/Emergent churches. They will become more de-centralized in leadership and denominations will not hold as much authority as they once did. They will need to change their worship styles, formats, and meeting forms as people care less and less about institutions and more about customizing their own lives.
However, that does not mean they do not have a purpose and place. I see no reason why these churches cannot remain and change. I think the emerging/Emergent cohort often looks down on the traditional churches with disdain. It tends to be a more liberal group and this unfortunately reeks of elitism and snobbery. Instead of chastising the traditional church we should dialogue and working along side with them.
There are not two camps. Rather there is one church. This church in America takes different shapes and we need to learn from each other and consider the wideness of God.