There is a difference between ‘church work’ and ‘the work of the church’. For many churchless believers, they are weary of the ‘busyness of churchwork’ and hungry to engage the mystery of the ‘work of the church’. The ‘work of the church’ is found in the mission activities of serving the poor, being advocates for the homeless, abused, disillusioned and seekers of God. There is certainly value in this activity. Some churchless believers have moved from the activities due to a hunger for the mystery of ‘how God works in and through believers engaged in the mission activities’. Others declare, “I’m not burned out, just tired of getting burned in church.”
How does God do work that only God can do? The absence of such conversation, amidst the activity, pushes some away to search for meaning and mystery. One told me, “My church keeps us so busy doing activities, we have no chance to unpack the mission experience so that it nurtures my soul.” It is a hunger for acknowledging and valuing the mystery that creates the yearning heart of the Churchless Believer. Some explain, “‘The abundance of activities of the church’ leaves us no time to know and reflect on the mystery of God AS church.” Churchless believers are searching to understand, engage and rest in the mysteries of the faith rather than the mission of the church. What is this saying to us as church? Where is this likely to take us? How might the institutional church value, explore and learn from this part of the Churchless believer’s journey?
News reports continue to present snapshots of a deterioration of religious institutions – whether local churches or state or national denominational agencies. Increasingly I’m feeling that maybe God is up to something new amidst the shakiness of existing structures that worked well in earlier decades and cultures but are quickly losing their impact in today’s 21st-century culture. What if the churchless believers, done’s and none’s are hints of and nudges toward something new?
A Huffington Post article recently captured my attention and spoke to the new emerging.
“Recently I heard a presentation by Episcopal Bishop Andy Doyle of the Diocese of Texas who spoke of the difference between the attractional church and the sending church. The former engages the world around it to draw people through its doors to become an active part of their congregation–nothing wrong with that, but in this culture it’s an increasingly difficult task. The sending church is all about mission–sending out people who sense a particular call to serve and witness in their communities, simply for the purpose of fulfilling the missional call of God.
Bishop Doyle said we must work with the culture we have, not wait for it to change. We must find the gospel symbols in this new culture to retell our story in fresh ways. And by the way, this is a phenomenon that has repeatedly occurred throughout history.
To do this, we need to redefine where Christian community happens, and it’s not necessarily inside a building on a Sunday morning. Bishop Doyle said, “Church has always been crazy people doing crazy things.” So we need to open our minds and hearts to new ways, even seemingly crazy ways, to engage a spiritually disengaged culture with a goal of loving them and sharing with them the richness of the spiritual life, in whatever ways it might be expressed.” [i]
I think there may be some wisdom and guidance in the Bishop’s words. My sense is Churchless Believers are not motivated as much by engaging in institutionally based mission activities but in exploring the mystery anchored in the mission and movement of God. I might suggest the following as a basic roadmap of exploring ‘new skills and intentional strategies’ as paths to reengaging churchless believers and exploring the mystery of the faith.
Exploring Mysteries of the Faith Include Providing:
Encouragement and Space to Pay Attention to the moves of God and the functioning AS church. Silence more than soliloquies, reflection more than ritual and participation more than spectator worship.
Opportunities and Resources for Reflection that helps believers to connect the dots of life, work, faith, community engagement, health and issues of justice, mercy and grace. Create guides and opportunities for casual and structured reflection on daily life experiences. Where do they intersect with faith? What are the lessons to be learned and embraced? What scriptural narratives inform and illuminate the experiences?
Intentional and Prayerful Process for Connecting the dots of life and faith, with people of various beliefs, cultures, traditions, and lifestyles. Connection takes intentionality in a busy world. It takes an intentional commitment to creating space in time, energy and focus to explore ‘What is that God is doing now? How is God moving in our midst? Where is God moving us next?’ Could it be that our typical ‘mission trips/activities’ might be replaced for a while by ‘mystery engagement experiences’ for intergenerational groups seeking God through connections, prayer, and reflections? My experience with this is rooted in the work of the Church of the Savior’s Inward/Outward Journey and the School of Christian Ministry experience found in my Gathered and Scattered Church book.[ii]
Opportunities to Explore Beyond the Known or Assumed. Dialogue might be in various arenas of work, social, family, faith and community life. Looking at what is but also willing to ask the hard questions, often ignored, of ‘What is not? What is being missed/overlooked/ignored here?’
Shift of perspective from ‘churchwork’ to ‘work of the Spirit’. So much energy, time, and the resource is focused on church work that frequently the work of Spirit is missed. Other times intentionally avoiding preserving what is, rather than moving into where the Spirit is leading. How critical is maintaining the institution we know for discovering and birthing the next form church will take to speak to this generation? Our immediate answer is maintaining what is critical and important because we value what the institution gives to us. But church history reveals practices, structures, forms, leadership styles and focus of mission has shifted several times throughout church history. Could it be its shifting again? We just lost Phyllis Tickle’s voice in this dialogue. She worked through her speaking and writing to help us open to the next transition in history. Maybe it is in exploring the mystery that we uncover the move and mission of God for today. Maybe the churchless believers are nudging us in this direction. What do you think?
[i] Wallace, Peter. “Engaging the Spiritually Disconnected: Inviting the Culture to Move to the Deeper End of Life’s Pool,” Huffington Post, Sept 23, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-peter-m-wallace/engaging-the-spiritually-_b_8177250.html