Unplugging from the Matrix, part 7

This is part 7 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6)

Well as soon as I say I’m finished with this series of posts on leaving established church, Brian McLaren goes and writes this amazing commentary on the landscape of mainline and evangelical religion in the U.S. (in the context of a counter-criticism of Al Mohler’s criticism of Rob Bell):

From childhood I was taught this liberal-mainline-decline narrative (and its counterpart – the conservative-Evangelical-growth narrative). I’m ashamed to say I never questioned it for years. But the narrative, like all prejudices, turns out to be terribly vulnerable – especially if you actually meet many of the people it purports to describe. Consider these possible rebuttals (some of which are quite popular among mainliners, some not):

  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was institutionalism.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was an excessive concern among many mainline Protestant leaders to protect their “mainline” status of privilege and power.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was complicity with nationalism, a complicity that was exposed as faulty in the Twentieth Century by two world wars and Vietnam.
  • Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was liturgical and organizational rigidity.
  • Perhaps the fall of mainline Protestantism had more to do with complacency and a lack of visionary leadership than it did with a willingness to question traditional interpretations of Scripture.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t dead or even dying: perhaps mainline Protestants have entered a latency period from which a new generation of Christian faith is trying to be born. (And perhaps conservative Protestantism is about to enter that latency period too.)
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t failing at all, any more than the US Postal Service is failing. (It’s actually doing more work than ever, with proportionately fewer resources than ever.) Perhaps it’s just that the times have changed, and First Class mail isn’t what it used to be, and mainline Protestants think they’re in the stamp-and-envelope business instead of the communication business.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants are in decline primarily because they haven’t been as good marketers as Evangelicals. Perhaps mainliners haven’t “pandered” to customer demands as well as Evangelicals. They haven’t adopted new technologies – first radio, then TV, then the internet – as savvily as Evangelicals have.
  • Perhaps mainline decline is related to higher college attendance rates – rates that, by the way, Evangelicals are now catching up to. Perhaps conservative Christianity will fare no better in holding young adults who get a college education than mainline Protestants were. Perhaps the graphs will end up in the same place, with just a 30- or 40-year lag.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestants started to decline when they became prophetic – agreeing with Dr. King about the institutional evils of segregation and the Viet Nam war. Perhaps being prophetic, which involves calling people forward to a better future, is inherently more costly and less popular than being conservative, which involves calling people back to a better past.
  • Perhaps Evangelicals started to grow when they filled in the same role mainline Protestants used to occupy: the civil religion of the United States.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism collapsed because of hypocrisy and disconnection from real-life issues, and perhaps Evangelicalism is edging ever-closer to a similar collapse.
  • Perhaps mainline Protestantism was the religion of the American countryside and small town, and it declined as rural and small-town populations declined. And perhaps Evangelicalism is the religion of the American suburbs, and its fate will rise and fall with suburban life.

Now I think the reasons for mainline decline are many and complex, and I wouldn’t bet my life on any one of these possible rebuttals alone or even all of them together. But taken together, they show that the “conservatives grow and liberals shrink” formula might give a false sense of superiority to one group, and a false sense of inferiority to the other. (My personal belief is that neither Evangelicals nor mainliners nor Roman Catholics nor Pentecostals nor anybody else is or has the full answer. I think Fr. Vincent Donovan had it right when he said we shouldn’t leave others where they are, nor should we try to bring them to where we are, as beautiful as that place might be. Instead, we should go with others to a place neither we nor they have been before. Where we need to be is not where any of us currently are; we are all being called higher up and further in.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 6

This is part 6 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5)

As far as I can tell, this will be the last post in this series about leaving denominational expressions of church. It has been a good way for me to process some of the things I’ve been feeling as we started a new church that was not connected to a denomination or launched out of an established church. But the Church, however, is always connected whether we realize it or not. For there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). And we all claim the same head – the Lord Jesus Christ.

This series of posts has also been a way for me to catalog quotes from others that confirmed my thinking. Here are a few more that have turned up in recent days.

From Bill Easum:

If we were to rely more on the Holy Spirit than on modern, democratic models, denominational structures would be replaced by church-to-church structures based on what is needed to transform each churches community.

Sadly, I think most denominations started out with this intention in mind. And when they operate effectively, they can achieve this church-to-church, Spirit-infused community transformation. But other times bureaucracy gets in the way.

So what can denoms do to get unstuck? Tony Morgan offers some ideas:

The United Methodist Church has lost about three million members since 1970. The number of people attending at least one Church of England service each month is down by 50% since 1968. Today less than three percent of the population attends services. Denominations are stuck.

I get to work with and communicate with church leaders across the country every day. Here’s what I know to be true — churches are stuck as well. Sometimes they don’t know they’re stuck. But, the symptoms are fairly obvious. Here are some symptoms to identify whether or not your church is stuck. Some of them are more obvious than others:

  • The church has stopped growing.
  • The congregation is aging.
  • Giving has declined.
  • Spiritual growth has stalled. People are just “consuming” ministry.
  • People aren’t serving.
  • People have stopped reaching their neighbors.
  • The church isn’t developing leaders.
  • Communications are confusing and lack purpose.

One of the main reasons I believe churches are stuck is because their systems and strategies are broken. Churches continue to use their same systems, but hope and pray for different results. The only way to get different results is to engage different systems. But, unfortunately, many churches (and denominations) would rather stay stuck and eventually die rather than making changes that might make people (including leaders) feel uncomfortable.

Some people getting uncomfortable might be the answer. Maybe the answer also lies in seeing denominations with different eyes. I’ll admit that this diagram from Steve Collins hurts my brain a little bit. It’s called “Scalability: What are denominations in emergence?”

(HT: Jonny Baker)

Collins adds:

A denomination in emergence:

  • does not have a fixed or necessary hierarchy
  • does not have a large difference between the top and bottom of any hierarchy that may appear
  • does not locate authority in predetermined or fixed positions
  • does not have clear or static boundaries
  • does not have a clear or static centre
  • has constantly varying degrees of membership
  • may dissolve, and reform later somewhere else

Is there hope and a future for denominations? Maybe. There are obviously a lot of positive things they accomplish – things for God’s Kingdom and for the benefit of those suffering. But long term viability may require seeing things with new eyes and pruning back some of the branches that don’t belong. Which is what the Church should always be doing.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 3

This is part 3 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Read Part 1, Read Part 2)

The Church Building. Also known as the sanctuary, worship center, nave, cathedral, auditorium, chapel, worship-torium, etc.

Churches waste money on buildings.

Church buildings aren’t inherently bad. Good things can come from a church having a building. But a church shouldn’t have to waste loads of money on a building – instead of investing in things that better serve the Kingdom of God and alleviate suffering in the world.

Everything that makes the church “the church” can be accomplished without a building. Can the Gospel be proclaimed without a building? Yes. Can you love and serve your neighbor without a building? Yes. Can you care for orphans, widows, and strangers without a building? Yes. Can you learn more about Jesus, the Bible, and discipleship without a building? Yes. Can you baptize people without a permanent baptistry or font? Yes. Can you share God’s meal of bread and wine without permanent furniture? Yes.

Oh, oh, oh, but how will we have a potluck luncheon, if we don’t have a building?!?

Well, the first issue is that you’ve named something a potluck luncheon :-). If anything, not having a physical building enhances our ability to be a community and tribe. Not having a building forces us to build relationships around tables, at bars, and in living rooms, which is where community is meant to happen and really occurs.

Mike quoted David Platt last year:

He makes a pretty good case that traditional churches are not very effective or efficient at helping change the world because they tend to get consumed with their buildings, their campuses and their little empires. (American Christians spend $10 billion a year on their church buildings, and almost a quarter trillion dollars is tied up in church-owned real estate.) In his book, Platt does a good job of challenging Christians to start caring less about building fancy, state-of-the-art church campuses and, instead, to start caring more about impacting the world for good.

One of the biggest cultural shifts for people that leave established/institutional church is getting over the building. The challenge is finding a way to create sacred spaces where people can feel like they’re “at church,” while not sacrificing the money to have an empty building 6 days a week.

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 1

The Matrix” is a film from 1999 that “depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines.

If memory serves me correctly, the movie became a natural analogy used by many hip preachers back at the turn of the millennium. It was an easy connection to the “in this world but not of this world” aspect of our faith.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. Its a lot like unplugging from the matrix.

A quote from Will Mancini:

The rise of church planting networks not only validate the entrepreneurial spirit but enable new groupings of ” the small” from the prior trend to exert more influence. As the new learning, new strategies and new relationships cluster in these front line networks, the knowledge, encouragement and accountability of traditional denominations bring less value. It’s no surprise to most readers that the time and resources from most denominations are woefully tied up with ineffective congregations.

When you first make the decision to leave the established/denominational church there is a lot of fear. It’s a scared-of-the-unknown, red pill/blue pill type decision. It’s inherently risky. I’ve spent several nights pondering whether delivering pizzas was in my career path. Or maybe inquiring about a managerial position at the local Half Price Books. But when you step back and look at the world today, that reality is present in every sector of the job market. So while leaving the established may seem risky, was it ever safe to begin with?

If you leave organized/denominational/established religion to find or create the perfect church, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Because even the cool church with all the best intentions of not repeating the sins of the big brother down the block is doomed for imperfection. Because the church is made of people. And we all suck (see Romans 3:23).

A quote from Morpheus in the movie:

What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

The reality is this: God is working in some of the most unlikely places. I think that’s been the point all along, and why the Bible includes liars, adulterers, murderers, and doubters among it’s greatest heroes. When you step outside the matrix of established religion, there is another world. It is the real world and it is filled with people. And God is working in it.