Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: Contemporary Churches by Louis F. Kavar

Those of us who grew up in Christian churches, no matter what denomination, were taught to understand that the church should be the center of our lives and activities: the hub. As attractive as that understanding of the local church may be, there has always been a fundamental flaw in this model of the church. As Christians, it is the teachings of Jesus and the way of life he modeled for us that should be the center of our lives and not an institution. Churches are places where we gather, learn, share faith, and celebrate our way of life and beliefs. But the institution is not a substitute for the experience of leading a spiritual life which is primarily informed by the teachings of Jesus and the experience of God in our midst. - Louis Kavar, Contemporary Churches

I would say that almost from my very first weeks in full-time pastoral ministry, I recognized that the church has a problem. In those earliest days I couldn't articulate what the problem was, but I knew that there was something about the way the church operates, something about the way it approaches what it does, something about what it understands itself to be, that is causing it to be in trouble without realizing it.

Over time, I'd find authors, speakers, blogs, and books to help give name to the slow-boiling crisis in which the church finds itself, chief among them being that many mainline churches think they can still operate as if they are the best or only game in town, religious or otherwise. It wonders why the old tricks that worked back when it was the center of society aren't as effective any more, and many don't even realize that that shift from the center to the periphery has taken and is taking place. In many places, our organizational structure and self-understanding is draining us, and we need a fresh approach rooted in our original purpose.

In his slim volume Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations, Louis Kavar names some of these problems manifested in mainline churches. He is a United Church of Christ pastor, so his experience is rooted in that tradition but easily translatable to similar denominations.

Kavar begins in the introduction by naming a few of the problems such churches are facing, singling out readiness to welcome new people, organizational structure, leadership, and the changing role of the church in American culture. He offers a brief overview of each as a setup to what comes after, giving enough background without belaboring any one point. He does spend a little more time on the church's cultural status, which contributes to the others in various ways. He also fleshes out each in subsequent chapters, so the reader is never left with a shallow understanding of what he means.

Kavar's chief concern is cultivating a shift in a church's understanding of who and what it is. He spends quite a bit of time exploring how many churches operate and approach their sense of purpose as an institution that must be maintained (and sometimes protected) and whose main function is to be a hub of activities and socialization around which people orient all available resources and free time. Some churches can get away with this, but an increasing amount cannot. What, then, do churches become instead given this changing reality, and what will such becoming ask them to change about themselves?

The answer is not a uniform, one-size-fits-all solution, which immediately differentiates this book from many contemporaries. What Kavar does suggest, is that churches understand themselves to be spiritual places that help people live lives of discipleship every day rather than bureaucracies whose main goal is the business of self-preservation. What does this look like? It depends. Kavar gives a handful of examples including one that changed its governing board practices to include a spiritual director who sits in on meetings and offers commentary. Another example is of a newly-merged congregation that spent most of its resources in programs and activities outside the building in efforts to engage its surrounding community.

In the final chapter, Kavar offers some general principles for the spiritual transformation of congregations. The common feature of each is that a sense of spiritual purpose informs everything a church does, where worship and prayer is a central factor in even the administrative side of its life rather than a token piece at the beginning.

I found Kavar's book to be a refreshing look at the hows and whys of a church rediscovering its identity as a place of spiritual empowerment rather than self-sustenance. It offers fresh ways to look at congregational revitalization that avoids proposing a static program that will purportedly work anywhere, instead sharing some basic tenets of what the church can be in a spiritually hungry culture that wonders whether it can still trust local congregations to be faithful guides on the journey. Kavar shows that indeed we still can, if we remember who we really are.

(I was asked to review this book by the Speakeasy blogging book review network, but ended up having to purchase my own copy. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)