I recall an elderly congregation member telling me the story of moving to the big city from a small town in the Midwest more than 70 years ago. She came to town a young, single woman, choosing career and adventure over a more traditional course.
I knew her to be a longtime and deeply dedicated member of my congregation, and I was curious: “How did you come to be part of this church?”
“Well, I moved to town on a Monday, found an apartment that Wednesday, woke up Sunday morning and went to the closest Baptist church. I’ve been here ever since,” she explained, as if I should have known.
She said, “I knew church was a place where I would find a community. I’d been a Baptist all my life. That’s just what we did back then.”
I’ll never forget that conversation because it highlighted for me the considerable shift we’ve seen in cultural perception and practice as it relates to the institutional church over the past few decades. Of all the people who joined that church while I was pastor, not one of them described waking up their first Sunday in town and attending the nearest Baptist church because “that’s just what you do.” (A large number of new church members seemed quite surprised to find themselves at a Baptist church at all, if the truth be told.)
Church attendance isn’t compelled anymore in our society, and if folks are looking for a church, their search criteria are far more often qualities like community and programming than denominational affiliation.
I think this reality is filled with grief for some of us; being part of a certain tribe offers the comfort of identity, belonging, familiarity. On the other hand, in this climate where denominational underpinnings are increasingly becoming distant backdrops for some churches, all of the sudden there are appearing unique opportunities to reexamine the disciplines that shape our communities; rethink the challenge of honoring our differences while building shared identity; and gain some on the ground appreciation for traditions other than the ones in which we ourselves have been formed.
Those of us who do church for a living are increasingly being offered the unique opportunity of working to form community that honors the larger Christian tradition and claims the mandate of Jesus Christ as the unifying focus of our shared conviction, not nondenominational but interdenominational.
All of these challenges are exciting. And daunting.
Having recently answered a call to serve a faith community that claims an ecumenical identity, I’m finding opportunities almost every day to reflect on questions I’ve not encountered in my previous work settings. For example, while for so many years I’ve been working to help folks reclaim a vital and life-giving Baptist identity, lately I’ve found myself asking questions like, “Is that a Presbyterian thing?” or “What’s a bishop again?” Questions running the gamut from issues of congregational governance to clergy attire offer opportunity after opportunity to reexamine why we do what we do and what life together might look like if we opened ourselves to the rich contributions of other traditions and practices.
In this new ecumenical setting, I’ve had to lean on my colleagues from many different traditions to help me navigate practices, liturgy, even language that feels unfamiliar and sometimes, given my strong Baptist formation and deep personal commitment to Baptist distinctives, kind of wrong. I’ve had to spend considerable time thinking and rethinking, reflecting on the practices and traditions that bring us together and those that divide us from each other, and asking myself how answers to many of these questions might begin to illustrate a future church.
I’m still grappling with all of these questions; in fact, I suspect I’ve only just begun what will be a long journey. But even with just the start of this reflective process I’ve been surprised. I’ve been surprised at the gracious welcome of those with differing perspectives. I’ve been surprised by the generous, authentic curiosity about my own tradition and perspectives; and I’ve been surprised by the grace I see all around me, evident in so many different expressions I’ve never encountered before.
I don’t know what the future of the institutional church will look like in full; I think we’re only just beginning to see a picture emerging. But for all the change and uncertainty in the process of its becoming, I feel sure that all of us who love the church and who work to make it a place of God’s transforming work in the world will encounter again and again, unexpected grace at every turn, and friends who will offer light for the next steps on this journey we’ve embarked on together.