Future of Mainline Protestantism
New Visions: Or, Church for People Who Aren't So Sure about Religion
Is It a New Theology That We Need?
I used to think that the answer was a new theology. My emphasis on constructing a theology was similar to the protagonist in Field of Dreams: "if we build it, they will come [back]."
Let's put it on the record: I was wrong. Christianity's problem today is not theology. Sure, we'll tweak and improve our formulations of what the Christian tradition is all about. We'll learn to be non-dogmatic and open to different beliefs and religions. All this matters. But let's face it: mainline Protestants have by and large already "been there, done that." It won't be a new theological text, or a new school within systematic theology, that will turn the ebb tide of our day.
Instead, the traditional word for what we need is ecclesiology, which means: new visions of what the church is and what it does. In Transforming Christian Theology, I summarized features of "missional" churches, drawing on proposals made by Brian McLaren and others. Let me formulate my "call to the church" as bluntly as possible:
We churchpeople were the center of American society since this nation was founded. We enjoyed power and prestige; we were the center of the action; we counted presidents, educators, and industry leaders among our numbers. But those days, it appears, are over. We still have a crucial role to play in the world. But it's no longer a world that revolves around us.
This new role actually makes it easier for us to model ourselves and our communities on the Head of the church, who "has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him" (Isaiah 53:2). As Dwight Friesen puts it in Thy Kingdom Connected, the church can no longer be a "bounded set," defining itself by the people and ideas it's opposed to. We now have to be a "centered set," pointing toward -- and living like -- the One whose life and ministry we model ourselves on. If we can't communicate our Center with power and conviction, no one's going to listen. Oh, and by the way: we have to find ways to do this that don't sound or look anything like the church has looked over the last 50 years or so.
Not Afraid to Experiment
What does "church" look like when you take it out of the box, replant it, and let it grow organically? It's going to stretch and challenge you; it's going to take openness to forms and practices you've never seen before:
- churches that meet in pubs, office buildings, school classrooms, or homes . . . or virtual churches, like those at SecondLife.com;
- churches that have no leader, or have leaders who don't look like any pastor you've ever known (OMG, what if they have piercings?);
- pastors who are hosts to discussions, who can listen long and deep to doubts and questions before presenting the answers on which they center their lives;
- churches that don't have buildings, denominations, pastors, or sermons; that don't meet on Sundays; that consist mainly of people who don't call themselves "Christians";
- churches whose participants are drawn from many different religious groups; churches full of "seekers"; churches that consist mostly of silence (like the Quakers) or of heated discussions between participants.