Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Towards a millennial ecclesiology

I am at Georgia Pastors' School this week learning from Mark Beeson and Marcia McFee, and it has been fascinating to hear from such divergent understandings of what it means to be church. I will dive more deeply into this idea in the future, but the whole conversation about worship and evangelism makes me think that the Church hasn't yet figured out how to talk about what church looks like for millennials. Maybe this is because millennials are just now entering church leadership, but as I have picked up some good stuff from both Beeson and McFee this week, I am realizing that my understanding of church doesn't match what I am hearing. To (briefly) explain, let me contrast two prevailing ecclesiologies I've encountered.

1. Church as Holy Rotary. This is a caricature, perhaps, but there is an ethos among a certain generation that came of age in the church when there was a certain status to church membership. You cared for the building out of respect and obligation. Membership was important, as was tradition. It's been pretty well acknowledged that this ethos is dying, but it clearly exists in churches with a significant population of older adults. I will say that I respect this position a lot, as it calls us to an institutional life that is stabilizing, larger than our own individual needs, and concerned with coming together to do the work of Jesus.

2. Church as School for Sinners. In this model, pioneered by many innovative baby boomers, church is de-institutionalized and centered on teaching the faith. You see lots of preaching series as faith topics are explained and expanded. The prevailing ethos is that the act of worship is about praise and learning. Many boomer pastors have been quite successful at this model of church by focusing on what they are after (hence the "seeker church" phenomenon) and making the vision be the driving force. As Beeson said today, "the pastor has to choose who to lose." By focusing on one core vision, those who don't buy in are invited to find someplace else to worship. The vision is the most important thing, and practices and (even) theology are centered on that vision.

Again, there is much to respect in this understanding of church. Vision is a core Biblical theme, and God's vision is what we're after, of course. And the Boomer corrective to the previous generation's paradigm is important, too, as the church building is only important as it relates to the mission and work of the church. But in the interest of de-institutionalizing the church, this School for Sinners model places so much emphasis on a singular vision that the congregation, by definition, ends up being pretty homogeneous: if not in socioeconomic/racial status, then at least theologically.

This leads me to something I am seeing more as a millennial in ministry (and something that is attractive to me about the awesome church I serve). While I do not believe pastors ought to bend over backwards to make everybody happy (and thus become, in the words of Will Willimon, a quivering mass of availability), there is something about the "choose who to lose" philosophy that feels problematic. Worse than that, it seems boring.

I serve a church with all sorts of people. We've got conservatives who are angry about almost everything and liberals who barely believe anything. We've got white folks and black folks, young folks and old folks, refugees and native-born Americans, gay folks and straight folks (including straight folks who are affirming of LGBT folks and those who most decidedly are not). We've got plenty of old folks, but we're growing most quickly with 20-somethings who love the diversity they see.  And we are growing. In the last year we've seen a 80-90% increase in worship attendance.

These folks are ATTRACTED by the diversity, not DISTRACTED by it. As a pastor, I can affirm that a church in which I invited those who disagreed with me to leave would be way easier to lead than a church with many different viewpoints. But my vision of the church is just that: that the diversity present in the congregation gives us a clearer picture of the face of God. In fact, just this week we got a fist-time visitor's survey back that said the following:

"I was pleasantly amazed. I come from a small town in GA where churches are still segregated. I felt such comfort. I never experienced anything like it before. I was not an African-American, I was just a child of God with other children of God."

I'm still working this ecclesiology out in my head. I am sure it has its problems, but if this is the kind of response we are getting, we're doing something right. I will acknowledge that it is not the most efficient vision of the church. But the kingdom of God is about faithfulness, not efficiency, and if North Decatur UMC is any guide, diversity and growth are not mutually exclusive.

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