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I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A funny thing happpened on the way to heaven...

God gave us congregations. I would prefer if we used the word "church" to mean whatever happens at the end of time when God gathers us all together, what we normally think of, in theological terms, as "heaven." Since I do not belive in heaven as a place, but rather as a sense of time when God binds creation in peace, "church" (that is, a "calling out") gathers all of creation together, including rocks (I love that Alfred North Whitehead quotation that says that everything moves, he called it concresence, even rocks, it's just that they move really, really slowly.) About the closest we come to using the term "church" the way I envision it is when we go to worship and say we really "did church" this morning. Too often we think of heaven and church as nouns rather than verbs, and that gets us into a lot of trouble...
So, although I believe no one in time has ever been to church for more than a few moments here and there, I also believe that folks have spent a lot of time congregating and in congregations. Congregations are the places and stuff we understand (even if we call them a "church," which as Calvin pointed out 500 years ago we really don't understand because "church" is part of God's mystery.) Congregations--well, we're beginning to get an idea of how those work...
In order to get us up to speed on this, we need to know one thing: up until about 50 years ago, very few people had spent any time trying to figure out congregations--but a lot of people spent time trying to figure out church. That switched around for some reason (my guesses: the pentecostal movement that disdains what most of Christian theology throughout the centuries called "the Church," and Martin Marty at the University of Chicago and his intellectual work on the "mandate to congregate.") Anyhow, over the last 50 years we've learned a lot about congregations, and are learning more every day. (Check out Church Innovations for some truly interesting research...and in full disclosure, yes, I help them out every now and then.) And the biggest learning?????? (Drum roll...I'll wait...)
Congregations tend to mimic how society works.
So, if you've been to a congregation over the past couple of years that seems like a well-run business, don't be shocked...the congregation was trying for that. If it seems like a poorly run business, don't be shocked...not everyone's good at business!
For example, why do congregations have budgets, and why are so many congregations stressing out about that these days? When did congregations first start having budgets? 100 years ago? How did congregations survive before then?
Here's another one: why do pastors often function as chief executive officers of congregations? The answer to each of these questions is the same: because that's what society prefers. (I'm not advocating some type of social darwinism here, it is purely a question of mimicry and a frightening lack of theological imagination...) One of the major impulses of the emergent church movement is trying to find congregations that can exist without succumbing to the dominant economic and managerial model that has placed so many congregations into a Babylonian captivity.
One of the main theological impulses of Prairie Table is to never fall into the business model of "Church." We'd rather fall into the "Love God, love your neighbor" model of congregations...and maybe find a way to heaven.

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