Tuesday, August 06, 2013

On Being Burned Out on Church-Related Pontification

I follow a lot of church people on Twitter and have a lot of church person friends on Facebook. I read a lot of church-related blogs and books and articles. As a result, I am very regularly subject to analysis and pontification about What The Church Should Do.

What the church should do to attract/retain young people. What the church should do to serve the poor. What the church should do to be relevant or authentic or whatever the current buzzword is that basically means "attractive to cool people." What the church should do to engage their communities. What the church should do to engage and welcome minority voices. What the church should do to truly be postmodern.

I used to gobble this up. Every new post, article, tidbit of wisdom...I was right there nodding my head, energized by what it said. It didn't take me very long after I started serving in full-time ministry that I realized that something about the church needed to change. So all of these resources purporting to break down the factors involved and proposing better ways to do and be church were refreshing and reassuring that yes, the church has a future as long as we pay attention to the data and to successful case studies where these sorts of principles were applied.

There came a point--and really, it was inevitable--that I'd become so steeped in these sorts of resources that I began to feel a little worn down. Part of that is just sheer volume: every time I turn around there is a new study, a new voice, a new perspective, even as the content begins to sound very similar. But there are a few other elements at play for me personally. And I have to be careful to own what I'm saying, because I know that many others still find great meaning in all these new analyses and conversations constantly popping up.

The first thing is simply that I've tried some of it and failed. I've said before that books and articles proposing The New Way To Do Church don't include "failure stories." They don't include the story of the new church start that folded after 18 months. They don't include the story of the pub discussion group that fizzled out. They don't include the attempts at "radical hospitality" that ended up becoming an unhealthy, uncomfortable mess of unregulated boundaries.

I have a couple theories about why this is. The obvious one is that "failure stories" don't sell, so they need to be weeded out or ignored.

The second theory is that a lot of this pontification hasn't actually been tested in any real way. Of course the church should be out serving local communities in mission, engaging younger generations, welcoming the outcast.

This stuff is said all the time, in part because it's easy to say. The trouble is when you move from saying to doing.

People on social media are constantly harping on about how awful it is that the church is not the ideal Kingdom Come on earth, and asking why haven't we yet achieved the unregulated perfect lovefest that it's meant to be? There's an easy answer for it, easier than you think, and it begins with another question: Have you actually tried to do it?

We humans are a screwed-up species. We get in our own way. We have hundreds of years of prejudice to untangle. We have the mental and emotional needs of many to account for. We each have our own unchecked biases, unrealized privilege, and unresolved issues to acknowledge. I can't fathom how anyone could have a high ecclesiology given that the church is made up of human beings.

Having spent a lifetime in the church, there finally comes a point where all of the "The Church Should Just..." armchair quarterbacking rings more and more hollow, because there is no "just." This ends up being a lot more complicated than "just." Saying it is easy. Attempting it quickly reveals that there is no such thing as "just."

But some churches have been successful at some of this stuff! So what about them? This is a fair question. And I wonder whether churches deemed "successful," in whatever sense you define it, have caught lightning in a bottle in their setting. Could what Mars Hill Bible Church or Saddleback have done really be replicated anywhere at any time? Is Purpose-Driven Life or small group ministry or coffeehouse worship or Organic Church or whatever else successful in every single setting in which it's attempted? I'm betting no. Why? Because not every setting is ideal for every single one of these ideas. Size, location, congregational energy, and a hundred other factors need to be read well to discern what might really be appropriate.

And really, that's what it comes down to: local context. "Contextual" was a buzzword for a while, and I hope it still is because it's the best one. Every local setting has its own flavor, its own needs, its own grouping of personalities and hangups. And these unique factors in each place end up rendering "the church just needs to..." sorts of statements relatively useless. General principles may be helpful, but get down on the ground and one realizes it's going to take more paying attention to a local situation and less to every latest "visionary" book, every daydreaming church guru on social media, every new study, to figure out what's meaningful and what's going to work there.

It's helpful to hear what others are doing, or at least what others have tried. It's helpful to engage voices from other places. But there comes a point where we need to move from saying to doing, from reading to serving. And in the midst of the failure and the weird mix of people we have to work with and the disillusionment and basic trial and error we operate with the hope that maybe some piece of God's kingdom may really appear, if only for a moment.