The news around aging and shrinking mainline churches is neither new nor good.
A 2008 article in the Boston Globe observes, “(yet) Protestant denominations are leaving many of their small churches open, allowing for a sizable number of struggling, even moribund, congregations with minimal programming and part-time clergy.” These (and other) congregations insist that it’s not about the numbers.
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. With apology to the Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, the lady here is the mother church, and her consistent disclaimer sounds like this: “we are not talking about the numbers”; “we are not talking about building up churches”. Of course this isn’t true. If it were true, then churches would be sending people out their doors – not, to proclaim The Good News of Jesus and thereby bring people into churches – but to gather where The Good News is already everywhere, as elegant as a monarch emerging from her cocoon, as wobbly as a fawn on newborn legs, or as awkward as a fledgling robin’s first flight pattern.
My friend Tom Wisner once challenged me, “you damn church people. You put a The in front of what you call good news, and you speak of it with a capital G and and a capital N, as though there were just one expression of it. That can’t be right.”
My intent for this book The Space Between Church & Not-Church ~ a sacramental vision for the healing of our planet – is to “borrow back” what the church has laid claim to in terms of good news, in terms of sacrament, liturgy, and ritual; to reflect upon the incalculable cost to the earth community of scriptural warrants such as Chosen; dominion and rule; multiply and fill the earth; subdue all the creatures of the land, and the water, and the air; stewardship. My intent is to name human privilege for what it is – the refusal to acknowledge our true place, within and intrinsic to an intricate web of life. My intent is to invite the church into the exercise of its prophetic voice and moral action around the urgency of justice for all living things – plants, animals, rocks, and rivers, as well as human beings.” (Terry Tempest Williams from The Open Space of Democracy.) My intent for this book is to invite all of us into the space between . . . where the process of engagement is apophatic – requiring that we unbuild, unsay, and unlearn that which has served to separate us from our true home.
What do you think of Tom Wisner’s remark? Is there only The Good News of Jesus and none else that can go under the captital G, capital N heading? Can you see this might be a problem for people outside churches?
Harvey Cox, in The Future of the Faith, defines ritual in this way: rituals are enactments – in song, story, visual representation, and gesture – of the narratives that inform a people’s identity. It’s a wonderfully broad understanding, filled with possibility for diversity.
What might be lost to both people within churches and people without when rituals become institutionalized, when the informative narrative is uniform? Is it possible for people in churches to look at the photograph above (Rex Nelson) and imagine that The Good News can be offered in ways other than requiring Jesus be at the center?
This would be a good conversation to have in a church group. It would be a good conversation to have with the young people of congregations who are clearly being informed by narratives other than the one offered by their churches.