I’ve been sitting on a half-written (now 3/4-written) reflection piece about the recurring question (for me every Sunday that I walk into & out of church) of being earnest. Unfortunately, it’s still not quite ready to peddle off on the five of you who really dig these posts. In lieu of that, and perhaps even more revealing (of something more interesting than me, I hope), I thought I might post the answers I just now provided my church’s pastor (is it symptomatic of something deeper & more problematic that I still don’t refer to her as my pastor?) to a questionnaire on ecclesiology she sent this afternoon to me and the others on her DMin advisory team. (Please, reserve your ill judgment of the good reverend on her choice of said team. I suspect she just wanted some cold, unemotional balance.)
In answering the questions below you can define “the church” as our local congregation. However, you can also consider “the church” as the many churches that make up our denomination (the UCC) or mainline Protestantism in general. Please answer these questions with the first thoughts that come to your mind. There is no right or wrong answers.
(1) What is the church? (Why does the church exist?)
The church is, at its best, which is admittedly not too often, the quintessential modern avant-garde community. At these times, momentary as they are, it is one of the final places that not only allows but (a) invites and (b) incites awkwardness [nod toward Kotsko here] & difference. The church, such as it is, is to be in tension with itself and with its world. Where it is has lost either tension, the church’s natural bend toward institutionalization bends even further toward its (inevitable?) stagnation. The church exists merely because (& only to the extent that) it does. It need not; and, indeed, it may not always. All this is a more or less worldly articulation of a theological packaging, in which the church is understood along the lines of “the hands and heart of God on earth,” whose tenuous, often quite problematic existence more than resembles but is in fact the manifestation of God’s activity on earth.
(2) What makes a church a church? (What are the core things that, if lost, would cause a local church to cease being a church?)
The core of a local church is (a) intentionally meeting in a shared space in order that it might (b) enact & embody its core beliefs about itself, its world/community, and one another. This may occur (1) formally in the collective enactment of ritual/worship; it may (2) occur informally (or even by accident), where individuals create or discover a meeting space, as in an intimate conversation, that crosses beyond the mundane and speaks in some way—be it in an overt harmony, or a dissonance with an underlying harmony, or an improvisational free-for-all that has a confessional touchstone around which they agree— to the things that matter most; or (3) it may be a mixture of both formality and informality, as in a shared participation in a cause or a movement or action. However it is manifested, the activity of the church is typically articulated through a shared grammar—namely, that of historical Christianity. The local church would very likely cease being the local church without some semblance of this shared grammar, but as with any grammar it is only useful to the extent that it is communicative of what the church is about (cf., question 1). The grammar is in service to the language, not the language to the grammar.
(3) Where is the church?
The church is anywhere it claims to be at any particular time. That is to say, it is not the building or location at which it meets, though the building and/or location can be symbolic of that meeting, and thus hold significant value. The church, rather, is the meeting or activity itself, the happening of the intentional meeting in a shared space in order that it might enact & embody its core beliefs about itself, its world/community, and one another. That this may occur formally, informally, and as a mixture of both signifies that the church’s location is fluid, but not necessarily everywhere. It could, in the absence of intention, etc., be nowhere. The church is not a natural (or supernatural) state that needs mere “participants.”
(4) Who is the church?
The church are those who meet intentionally in a shared space in order to embody & enact core beliefs . . . etc.
(5) What do you see as the greatest challenge or obstacle for the future of our local church? For the UCC? For Mainline Protestantism?
People feel increasingly stretched beyond their individual means—with their finances, time, relationships, etc. They’re over-extended in their myriad investments, most of which have no significant (if any positive) rate of return. They are discouraged and increasingly absent of hope. Church has typically been presented either as an ineffectual vehicle of wish-fulfillment or an obstacle (presented as a promise) to the present satisfaction of all wishes. Either way, for a good many church is the physical representation/reminder of, certainly for those without, their own discouragement and failures: “They do good work, the church, I’ll admit, but they’re fundamentally needy themselves, and I’m not needy,” says the man three times divorced with an alcohol dependence matched only by his penchant for randomly catching himself crying in the shower.
Or, alternatively, they’re completely sold on the core conservative religious belief of a personal salvation experienced immediately—now. Here, there need only be a one-time expression of neediness and an occasional nod afterward to this need. It is my belief, however, that the UCC / Mainline Protestantism as a whole cannot & should not remove itself from neediness, as its core belief is that which matters most in the world is that which is in the most need. Poverty, in all its various expressions—the present realities of physical want, mental burden, spiritual anguish, etc.—is both the UCC’s greatest obstacle and the challenge that (hopefully) invigorates it forward.
(6) What do you see as the greatest hope or possibility for the future of our local church? For the UCC? For Mainline Protestantism?
There is, I think, a general sense amongst people my age and younger, or at least those with whom I most identify [i.e., you lot], that we have been sold a false bill of goods about the world. The American Dream, in all its insipid non-American forms, too, as it were, is lost on us. We are apt to continue our flight from the reigning regimes of normalcy—for we in the commodified West this includes suburbia, 2.5-kids and lifelong spouse, green grass of home, a career, etc. It’s not that we’re against structures of power or authority, as some imagine, but rather the false promises that have tended to attend thereto. We’re not so much opposed to rituals as we are rigidity. The point is not some hell-bent anarchist do-as-you-please, fuck-fest in the fields of a free concert (though that is occasionally nice), but an improvisational experimentation that is not about patting itself on the back for being so free-thinking and cool, but one that is actually in the service of creating a moment (if nothing else), a glimpse, of something better, or, barring that, something that matters, or, as much as it it sounds like beatnik sentiment, something true. I returned to the church, the UCC in particular, because I think it has the potential (the will, now that’s a different issue) to enact (or, for some older congregations twenty years from closing up shop, let’s be realistic, be a patron to) the creation of these moments & glimpses.
We are on a political & ecological precipice point. On their current trajectory of both, I don’t see a bright future for either the UCC/Mainline Protestantism or the world in general. Nevertheless, interesting, profound, and maybe even revelatory things may still happen on the precipice. The language of the soul and soul-saving, the stuff of conservative religion and the seasoning of a good many other, is most helpful before & after the proverbial “shit hits the fan”—but while it is hitting . . . well, isn’t this the time of so-called progressive religion? If we are not yet in this time, we are surely on the verge—or, barring that, even, we must believe ourselves to be if we are to have any impact on the world.
This is, I realize, an incredibly bleak, almost certainly unpreachable way to express the hope of progressive Christianity, but I do in fact see it as such. As sad as it is, in this our modern world, attention to that which matters may occur only when the possibility of attention at all is threatened.