I am not really sure what it means to talk about Traditional Congregations. In a more cynical moment, I find myself wondering what other forms of Church there are. In my more distanced, and even academic mode I look back through 2000 years of history and see only local communities of faith inter-twined in what the creeds call One Holy catholic, or universal Church. In my more reflective moments, I recall questions presented to greater thinkers than I- such as Alan Hirsch, a contemporary Missional Church leader. In a recent interview by a couple of house church leaders an interesting phenomenon was given voice. The interviewers recounted their community rhythm by saying that all their efforts to de-centralize, work with bi-vocational ministry teams, and not maintain a building are regularly confronted by a simple question: “When do we get to be a real Church?”
So what am I trying to say with all these rambling observations. Well, I think this video will help.
Even when we venture out to do something new and innovative we create a new variation on a theme. We take the building blocks, like the 4 pop chords, and rearrange them to suit us, our styles, our social networks, and even our cultures. Yet, we must still figure out the logistics of being together- creating systems of organization, money sharing, and leadership. Soon gatherings for management emerge and take up the time for ministry. Not long after that, ideas and visions come into conflict- how to worship, what to do with new people, and still not much further down the road we find ourselves embattled about carpet colors or the paint to use in the meeting space.
The default reaction in the Church today has been to divide and multiply. We find central theological or ethical or even practical claims that distinguishes us from them. Then, rather than hold those in creative and dynamic tension, we take our ball and play in another play ground. Not Re-thinking Church- but Re-Creating it, Rearranging the four chords to make a new greatest hit.
The western Church, especially in North America, has shaped itself around the idea that we gather, not in the cloud of witnesses, but in grouping of people “Like Me.” So our congregations look monolithic and monochromatic, literally. And the only way we understand ourselves, individually and collectively, is by saying who we are not- So we simultaneously gather with like minded people AND need that other congregation or group to remind us of who we are not. I am of A congregation and not B- even though they may be Brethren. And then when we gather as the larger church we form identity groupings even beyond our congregations- Voices for an Open Spirit, while a gathering of like minded Brethren NEEDS the Brethren Revival Fellowship as a kind of opposite pole if only for the purpose of Negative Definition- And the same is said in reverse. Conservatives only make sense when shown in relief to their Progressive Other. In the end, we pit congregation against congregation, brother against sister, Group against Group. Then the Divide and Multiply cycle continues on.
What if the problem of the Church today is not so much it’s Institutional nature, but this continual re-inventing of the wheel time and time again? What if the problem is our continual avoidance and separation from the Other- the one close enough to be called brother or sister but who is different enough to be in totally different Churches? What if our problem is the type of self-definition by negation- saying who we are by saying who we are not?
How do we get around that? What new 4 chords do we need to find?
I think the vision of congregations as diverse communities where varieties of ideas, practices, and people are held together might actually offer us a third way. What if we picked a community and stayed with it, even during the inane fights over carpet? Then as we gather together the differences are not so much signs of failed unity, but a means to find out who we really are. In that way of being together, the Other is not a sign of what I am not, but actually helps me see who I truly am beneath the facades and self-conscious portraits I present to the world. What if these people that get under my skin each week are actually gifting me with that unvarnished picture that reveals my TRUE SELF- faults and gifts. The other then, becomes a mirror rather than a thing to be rejected. We all know how this works, especially when someone reminds us that the person we most despise is often the person MOST LIKE US.
Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk talked of this often. It was easy for him to idolize a community, imagining that the monastery was somehow more spiritual than the congregation- every one there chooses to be there, right? Yet, in that daily interaction there are few things worse than the sound of a table partner who chews too loudly, or the other brother who just can’t seem to find the key, let alone any key when singing. The most mundane, the most regular daily interaction can often be the most grating.
I think in this way of being together, we break the cycle of taking our ball to a new play ground. By committing to a community of believers in this way, we find root in an actual congregation of believers rather than seeking after an idealized Church that never truly comes into being because we are forever searching. Then we finally make sense of our own scriptures, especially the New Testament letters which reveal Real People, in Real Places, Really Living Together in Christ. We can finally read Paul, not as an Institutional Bureaucrat trying to make the congregations of Corinth, Rome, Ephesus and Philippi just like him, but as one nurturing communities as the Diverse Body of Christ- called together in Christ not made together by their similarities.
What if Re-Thinking Church was not about creating something new, but reclaiming something very old?