Two years after his 19 year old wife died of tuberculosis, Ralph Waldo Emerson (b 1803) wrote,
"I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers."Three years after I left parochial ministry, I have to say that, more and more, I agree with Emerson.
Well, by "the ministry" I believe he means the ministry as defined (and limited by) "the church". And, by "church," I mean the institutional church - not the place that is not necessarily a church building where two or more Christians have gathered in the name of Jesus.
I'll start, straight up, with a confession: I have always been ambivalent about the institutional church.
Of any denomination. Anywhere.
I once cared. Very much. Don't any more. Waste of energy. Poor stewardship.
I know. On one level, that's an incredible thing for an ordained person to say. Especially one that has given so much of her life to the institutional church and worked so hard to hold the church accountable to the justice the church claims to be central to its mission.
In my own defense, however, I confess that I am passionate about Christianity in general and "making better Christians" in particular.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the institutional church will make you a Christian any more than going to a garage will make you a car (as the old joke goes).
It's not what you think. I'm not talking about standing on a street corner like the non-denominational Evangelicals and Pentecostal or knocking door to door like the Mormons.
I'm talking about what the church sometimes calls "Christian formation" - although the term sounds pretty spiritually arrogant to me. Sort of in the same way I find "Spiritual Direction" arrogant and mildly offensive. I much prefer the term "Anamchara" or "Soul Friend".
Specifically, I think "Christian formation" means meeting Christians where they are and helping them to deepen and strengthen their faith.
That's where my passion is. Not the institutional church. Not any more.
Here's why. I have two confessions. And, a four part plan.
US population growth is just shy of 1% per year but church membership (a self reported number and likely over inflated) is down. The data shows a 1.15% decline in in membership.
There is a growing concern that this is going to get worse – much worse.
The members that stay behind are also giving less.
In terms of per capita giving, the $763 contributed per person is down $17 from the previous year, according to a 2013 study for the National Council of Churches conducted by Eillen W. Lindner. That is a 2.2 percent drop.”That is only 1.8% giving per capita (US Per capita data here) and down 2.2% from the previous year.
So, while the US population is growing, the churches have a decrease in membership and an additional loss of revenue. A net income loss of somewhere around 3.35% (2.2% plus 1.15%).
Remember: I'm not talking about a specific denomination. I'm talking about the institutional church.
At this rate, as any freshman economics student could tell you, growth is unsustainable.
Indeed, one of my worst fears is that pledging to the church is poor stewardship.
Here's the truth of it: I still pledge to my local church because it has an amazing number of ministries within the community. It is a mission outpost that also gathers every Sunday to pray. I wish more of the congregation were involved in the ministries in the community, but there's still a higher percentage than many churches.
That said, I don't believe it is either healthy or wise to support the institutional church - financially, emotionally or spiritually or, especially, by ordaining any more "nice" but well educated and well intentioned (Good Lord, deliver us!) people to it.
I have come to believe that the institutional church is hopelessly corrupt and beyond salvation. I believe that it is more concerned about it's own salvation, which is why it has lost its quest for excellence and has become so comfortable with mediocrity - and why in more and more cases it can't be a vehicle of anyone else's salvation.
That is not hyperbole or exaggeration.
I think most bishops and priests are well-intentioned men and women who are in over their head - way, way over their head. Indeed, I don't know anyone who can do the job they must do in order to "save the church". So, perhaps predictably, it's become all about marketing and gimmick which, when dressed up in a clergy collar, is supposed to pass for "prophetic".
Actually, it's pretty pathetic.
More than a few bishops were once excellent parish priests who have now have no idea how to be a bishop, because, much to their surprise, they have found that the expectations of the institutional church have more to do with being a CEO and fundraiser than being chief pastor.
Some have simply shut down and have been "phoning it in" for so long that some of they don't even know the accurate names and locations of the churches in their own dioceses (True story here). Others have become less leaders and more cheerleaders of gimmicks and slick marketing.
I think this essay, "Leadership in Anxious Times" nails it. Frederick Schmidt's metaphor of "this old house" whose "thirty years of neglect that made it affordable," is a brief but powerful parable about the church. I especially like this of his Six Lessons:
Don't confuse creative marketing with effective mission. Nothing sidelines an institution faster than contraction and flailing that is labeled as vision and the dawning of a new era. The people who come through your doors know it instantly. Many more simply never show up, because they can smell false advertising a mile away.Here's the thing: I don't believe Jesus wants us to save the institutional church. Indeed, I don't think He will, no matter how much we wish He would.
I believe Jesus doesn't want more churches. More buildings. More property. More churches.
That's more about empire building than building up the Realm of God.
I believe that Jesus would like more followers.
I believe Jesus wants more people to be more authentically Christian. More people who are willing to follow their baptismal vows more nearly and dearly, and live into the answer of their baptismal prayer that they "grow to the full stature of Christ."
We don't need a "vision" or a "revision" or even another "reformation" of the church.
We need a revolution, is what.
We need to discover just how big small can be.
We need to get "back to the future".
That's my first confession.
My second confession is that, for the past six years, I've been watching the growth and development of the Anamchara Fellowship. While other religious organizations are shrinking, Anamchara has had a steady 15% annual growth.
Why is it that, while the institutional church continues to close more churches than it starts, this ragtag bunch of assorted Christians continues to attract new members?
Full disclosure: My beloved is the Abbess of the Anamchara Fellowship.
their web page, you will find that they have no "place". No building. No monastery. No convent. No retreat center. No church. No property. No land.
Their spirituality is clearly Celtic but they are also clearly and devoutly Episcopalian and Anglican. They are male and female, priest, deacon and laity, single, partnered, married and divorced, black and white, gay and straight, cradle and convert.
And - whether they are lay or ordained - they are all entitled to wear the same "uniform". Some do. Some don't. Some, I'm convinced, sleep in it. I'm not particularly fond of it, and, unfortunately, it invites more than its share of the unstable who really think there's "magic in the habit". Thankfully, they've got a rigorous discernment process and, despite a few mostly delightful 'peculiar' folks in their membership, they have a pretty spiritually, emotionally and theologically solid leadership.
They meet once a year at Annual Gathering. Monthly in their geographical "priories". Twice weekly on Skype for Compline. They communicate daily on their closed Facebook page. And of course, there's the telephone and cell phone.
They empower and enable and equip each other to pursue their individual and particular vocations and missions in their own communities of faith, in their own neighborhoods, in their own homes and families.
Did I mention that they are growing? 15% every year. Steady. Consistent. Since 2002.
I know some rectors and bishops who might be convinced to sell at least part of their soul for that rate of growth.
So, here's my plan for evangelism. It has four parts.
First: Close more churches.Here's why:
Second: Support more cathedrals.
Third: Ordain less priests, even fewer bishops, more deacons and, of them, only proven leaders who are willing to take risks for the Gospel.
Fourth: Shape and form, empower and equip more Christians.
The core essentials of Judaism are at the heart of Christianity. The early church did not focus on building places where new Christians could meet. Instead, the early church met people where they lived and breathed and moved and had their being.
The early church, like the synagogue, empowered people to worship and serve God and the people of God in their homes and communities. People went to synagogue to study Torah and learn how to be a better person. The family was the center of faith. The 'neighborhood' was the community of faith.
Education, religious and secular, was - and is - a high priority.
This is true, even today.
The synagogue was (and remains) the place for the celebration of High Holy Days and the major events in the life of the community - the weddings and funerals and the Bar Mitzvahs - but the emphasis was (and remains) on educating, empowering and enabling the people of God.
Their liturgies are all about remembering and re-enacting the stories of their faith so that they might live their faith more fully in their own lives where they find themselves.
The Rabbis continue to be the teachers. The business of running the congregation is left to the President of the congregation. But the emphasis is on an educated laity and the empowerment of families to worship God in their homes and honor God in their lives.
I do believe this model is the work that the church - which claims to be the incarnation of the gloriously resurrected body of Rabbi Jesus - needs to be about.
It's what we're not doing.
I believe it's a big part of why the church is dying.
Which is why I think we need to close more churches and support more Cathedrals.
The ancient role of the bishops is to be "chief pastor". Bishops are people who love Jesus so much that they call the church and the world to be in more intimate relationship with each other.
The bishop is NOT the CEO of the diocese. The "ministry of the purse" is that of the deacon.
In my plan, the church buildings in communities that can support - and only those that can support - them, will then become "mission outposts" of the diocese and cathedral. As such, they would become "home base" to the various cathedral staff - lay and ordained - who will be assigned there, on a rotating and itinerant basis, depending upon the particular needs of that particular community.
I think churches must give the "first fruits" - a tithe, a pledge, the first 10% of their income - in service to the community. They must be able to support the workers - the diocesan and cathedral staff who come to minister in their midst. And, I think "clergy compensation" ought to be standardized throughout the diocese, according to job description.
Instead of using "ASA" (Average Sunday Attendance) as the measure of "viability", the measure would be how the building and the staff are serving the community and the world. Rather than looking at how many people are in the pews, we would be asking of people and clergy, "How did you live out Matthew 25?" And, "How many risks have you taken for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" And, "How many Christians are being helped to live out the Gospel in their own lives?"
One important metric for me is this: If the line items in the budget for repair and maintenance of the church buildings and grounds is larger than the line item for outreach and mission, a church is already spiritually dead and ought to be closed.
The only people we assign there - like the only people we ordain - are people who have demonstrated skills and abilities as creative servant leaders . . . . BEFORE they are ordained.
I am sick unto death of the embarrassment of riches of "nice" clergy. We have boatloads of them in The Episcopal Church. Well educated. Smart. Articulate. Kind. Deeply spiritual.
We don't seem to be raising up the kind of leadership with the qualities we need: First and foremost, those with some fire in the belly for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those with some energy who have the ability to inspire others to action.
People who love Jesus more than they do the institutional church.
This is important: Those who are clear about their own identity apart from their spouse/family/church or the identity a clergy shirt and collar will bestow upon them.
People who are: Self-starters. Self motivated. Innovative. Creative. Risk takers. Community organizers. Passionate about justice. People who can put aside their own personal goals and ambitions and work with others for the sake of the Gospel.
People who are secure enough in themselves to raise up and train other members of the baptized without feeling threatened by their skills and abilities. People who believe - really believe and not just give lip service to - the priesthood of all believers.
People who believe that so much that they are willing to move beyond status and respectability and permanence and security and be with people where they are: at their work sites - from factories and farms to board rooms and high rise offices - in their homes - from crowded tenements to McMansions - on the buses and subways.
People who can use the internet to the glory of God and for the edification of the Body of Christ. Jesus sent the disciples out, two by two. If Jesus were to begin His ministry today, I have no doubt that He would send out His word, two by two gigabytes.
Evangelism by sandals then. Evangelism by internet now.
Everywhere people are, there the church should be.
Because, that's where the church is, already. The institutional church is arrogant enough to believe that the only place to meet Jesus is at their altar, with their magnificent music, listening to their profound words of wisdom from their pulpit, watching their beautifully choreographed liturgical dance steps in their beautiful sanctuary.
The people of God are literally dying for the institutional church to meet The Body of Christ where He already is - where they are.
Which is why the institutional church is dying. Because the people of God are not being fed with the bread of heaven where they are. The way Jesus did. The way Jesus sent his disciples out, two by two, to be with people. Not set up shop and expect people to come to them.
This is how Christianity will continue to grow and thrive.
It means that more and more of the institutional church must die.
The good news is that is is already dying.
The really good news is that, because of Jesus, we have the promise of resurrection.
I have no doubt that I've more than annoyed a few folks with this post. Indeed, I haven't done that intentionally but, you know, I hope I have.
I also have no doubt that many people will disagree with me. I never said I was right. I have only said that what we're doing is not only not working, it is not bringing more people to Jesus and not edifying the Christians we have.
My real hope is that it provokes some serious conversation which gets us off the sense of failure because churches are closing and moves us to be excited to close more churches and be better Christians.
I probably won't be around 30 years from now when my hope is that someone will say, "You know, years ago, Elizabeth Kaeton wrote a blog about this very thing. I just thought she was getting old and dottery. Turns out, we probably should have listened."
Or, perhaps, the women over at Dirty, Sexy Ministry have it right. Perhaps it's only that some "things" have, in their words, "lived waaay beyond their expiration date in the church" and need to die.
Bottom line: The Church (or serious parts of it) must die so Christianity can thrive.
Either way, we agree: The church is dying! And, has been since its birth on Pentecost.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Long live The Body of Christ!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!