New Visions: Or, Church for People Who Aren't So Sure about Religion

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.

Not only conservatives will wonder and worry where one should draw the line. And that's the point: we've now entered an age where we no longer know how to draw lines, because the old criteria just don't work anymore -- except to exclude the vast majority of the people whom we hope to interest.

As I look back over what I've written, I think, "Yes, this is a world, and a kind of church, that Jesus would have understood." I'm not sure he would have understood the papacy, or Christian imperialism, or the monumental systematic theologies, or the "church triumphant" in Victorian America. But what about an age in which people passionately yearn to experience God, to live a lifestyle of love and self-emptying, to embrace the needy whoever and wherever they are, even as the old orthodoxies are collapsing around us? Somehow, I think Jesus would have been at home in this world. Perhaps he still is.

 

Philip Clayton is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Claremont Graduate University and Ingraham Professor at Claremont School of Theology. He is primarily known for his work in constructive theology and the religion-science debate. He is the author or editor of over 100 articles and eighteen books, most recently The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, Adventures in the Spirit, In Quest of Freedom, and Transforming Christian Theology. Visit his blog here

7/26/2010 4:00:00 AM
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