In Michael Jinkin’s wonderful book, The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in Postmodern Context, he makes the point that when faced with death most churches do one of two things: lapse into paralysis or launch into hyperactivity, casting about for the cutting-edge program and/or new structure that will somehow save the church from its destiny. Churches tend to believe that “salvation is just one organizational chart away”.
Neither of these strategies is an effective answer to the profoundly shifted place that the church is now historically-located. No matter how you arrange the chairs, the UCC Titanic is going to sink unless the underlying narrative (the story) of what it means to be church is not reconsidered, re-envisioned and addressed by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.
Our General Minister and President John Thomas repeated our underlying “story” again during the October 2007 meeting of the Executive Council: “to make the historic faith relevant in the current generation”. This “story” is the real problem in our current struggle with governance and with our dwindling numbers. It assumes that the faith will simply be reproduced within our family groups. As THE story that has undergirded evangelism in most UCC churches, it is a failed story. Since the 1950’s, those raised in the church have fled the church in large numbers. This is the primary story of “oldline decline” and it is folly to continue to repeat this story in a new structure.
In the UCC’s a renewed commitment to evangelism, new churches and ministry development will require a change in this underlying story that assumes we will promulgate the faith through our children. We also need a new commitment to focus on mission: to develop new disciples, to foster and welcome new churches and ministries and that commitment ought be front and center in all our decision-making.
This is a moment when the United Church of Christ has the opportunity to die to its old and failed history that has sought to simply reproduce itself and not reach beyond our immediate circles and to embrace the calling of the current age to reach out to those who are searching for an authentic experience of the liberative power of the Holy Spirit and the extravagant welcome of Jesus.
To be “church” in the 21st century is to minister in a what author Leonard Sweet has labeled a cultural “perfect storm” of: postmodernism, postchristendom and a globalized, post-scale context. Nothing in this proposal actually considers in what way the structure embodies the Body of Christ: our ecclesia. In this regard, history has much to teach us.
At the end of the 1st century, the followers of Jesus numbered some 20,000. By the 3rd century, over 20 million. The spread of the Gospel during this apostolic period was achieved under the threat of persecution and without the benefit of institutional support. In fact, it was achieved because it had not become an institution. Even today, the Gospel is spreading most rapidly by “movement”, not institution. Just look at the case of the burgeoning growth of the church in China. This “apostolic genius”, as Alan Hirsch calls it, was based in mission – not structure. This current proposal does not stem from mission – it stems from institutional concerns.
Another feature of the “apostolic genius” was to reach to the margins – not the center – with the love of Jesus. The dilution of the voices of historically underrepresented groups and the quibbling over representation points to a bigger problem in our failed “story”. Most of those who will serve on a new mega-board will no doubt come from the “top”, not the “bottom”. Where are we growing? It is not in Euro-American suburban churches. Our theology and ethos appeals to those who live at the margins of church and society and yet this new structure will create a “hierarchy” at odds with that message.
What is needed now is vision and a commitment to mission – not institutionalism – that will then tell us whether changes in structure are required.
The time is now . . . to take seriously what it means to be church, not just how many bodies will sit on a board.