Church: Can We Get Over Ourselves?

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“As Christendom declines and Emergence Christianity continues to blossom in all its messy glory, we in the institutional church face a central question. Can we get over ourselves? Can we give up our self absorbed fretting about how good things used to be so we can see the beautiful possibilities now?”

When I was 51 years old I decided to compete in a triathlon for the first time. Sure, it was “only” sprint distance, but the thought of any kind of athletic competition was daunting, to say the least. The last time I had engaged in a competitive sport was speed skating in high school. It was the end of my first year on a new job, and I had spent the past few months taking care of my mother who lived with us as she underwent two cancer surgeries and a lengthy hospitalization. Why did I enter a triathlon then, of all times? My friend Donna talked me into it. This would be her third triathlon, she said, and she was 12 years older than me. I was perfectly capable of training for it with her, she said, and she needed someone who would do that. She begged and nagged until I finally agreed.

The first thing Donna said to me as we began to train was, “You’ve got to get over yourself. Get over how slow you are. And how you could get hurt. Get over what people will think, how you look, all of it. Let it go. Embrace the experience for itself. Go with it. Live it. You will be surprised at how much you can do. You are stronger than you think you are.”

Donna was right. I had to get over myself, and it took time. As I gradually increased my capacity to swim, run (well, trot), and bike the required distances without stopping, I found myself feeling more alive, even playful. When the day finally came, I felt a rush of anxiety as I approached the start line. What was I doing there? But I remembered Donna’s words. Of all days, this was the most important day to get over myself. The race began and there was no more time to think. By the time most of the other competitors had already gone home I crossed the finish line. I didn’t care. I laughed all the way home at the sheer fact of participation.

Donna’s advice is what the church needs now as we face a future of accelerating change and fearsome violence. We, the church, have to make a choice day by day to get over ourselves or we will miss God’s call. Getting over ourselves means trusting God while we learn new skills that are grounded in ancient wisdom. It means letting go of habits and comfort zones that we label “tradition,” but which keep us from embracing the real tradition—aligning ourselves with God in Christ who is making all things new.

We are in the middle of rapid, unprecedented culture shifts that are driven by changes in communication and information technology, economics, political upheaval, religious turmoil, and escalating violence. In this context many people in the inherited church live in a state of grief because of the increasing failure of their programs, activities, and worship gatherings to make a difference. What used to work in reaching neighbors with the gospel, no longer does. Because of the anxiety of failure in the system it is increasingly difficult for declining churches to imagine a lively future that looks different from a lively past. The thought of taking risks, of concerning itself more with its neighbors than itself is terrifying to the stuck, backward looking church. This is the church that must now get over itself.

The good news is that groups of Christians are taking the plunge. Signs of life are everywhere, sprouting like dandelions in the parking lot, foretelling a robust future for the church that gets over itself. Some of these signs have to do with why, how, and where these Christians gather—at pubs, in someone’s kitchen, at a co-working space, a protest movement, or under a bridge. Sometimes they meet in church buildings, but their priorities are different. The people outside the building shape what goes on inside the building, so that the ethos is built on neighboring in the way of Jesus. Loving neighbors well, regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof) is a core value for many new faith communities.

Emergence Christians, as Phyllis Tickle named them, define church more by community, or life together, than by buildings, programs or worship. Emergence Christianity is not a worship style. It is not one thing. While many of the communities love ancient, traditional liturgy such as Evensong, and a great many are sacramental, some of them are so loosely organized as to seem scarcely more than a handful of friends, gathered around the Bible and a good craft beer. On the whole there is much more commitment to engage issues of social and environmental justice than is the case in the average inherited church.

As is always true during a time of cultural emergence, diversity of experiments is the order of the day. Some forms of church that sprout now will be short lived, but their value as experiments is essential. Emergence Christianity is willing to try many things, learn from what doesn’t work, and find its way forward. Over time some of the new forms church is taking now, will root and become established, and will shape how we imagine church more broadly. They will shape theological education and impact society at large.

As Christendom declines and Emergence Christianity continues to blossom in all its messy glory, we in the institutional church face a central question. Can we get over ourselves? Can we give up our self absorbed fretting about how good things used to be so we can see the beautiful possibilities now? Can we get over calling local comfort zones “tradition” so that we can hold onto and live the meaning of the real tradition—God in Christ, making all things new? Can we let go of the same, tired, polarizing, labeling questions that keep us from loving our neighbors and take up new questions that help us risk living in the way of Christ? The church that gets over itself is the church that will join God’s great adventure unfolding before our eyes, the new reformation. It is the church that sees and joins God in the neighborhood, at the protest movement, under the bridge, at the county jail, God who is making all things new.

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BC_ElaineHeath_bioElaine A. Heath is the dean of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. An ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, she has served as pastor in local churches as well as in academia. Elaine is the cofounder of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, a nonprofit that administers a national network of regional hubs of missional learning communities.

She is also the author of the new book God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church (Upper Room Books, 2016). Read an excerpt at the Patheos Book Club HERE.