Re-Tooling the Church

Recently Richard and I spent a very pleasant afternoon with two friends. One of the women was sharing how some of the proposed changes local government is making for training in her profession (training educators) could actually make her position obsolete in the not-too-distant future. While she admitted these changes would save money, she also shared her concerns that the quality of training would suffer. The reduction in quality of training would then have negative impacts on future educators as well as the young people they instruct.

The discussion then turned to what we would do if our jobs became obsolete. How would we “re-tool” to adjust to our new realities?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot in the past year or so. On one hand, I’m blessed to be a fairly compensated full-time pastor; on the other hand, I know that reality can change in a very short time. No, I don’t sit around worrying that the next phone call I receive will be from the Vice-Moderator of our board, notifying me the congregation is calling for my resignation for one reason or another.  And although we don’t have an endowment, and our board does have to watch our finances very carefully, I also don’t worry that next week’s paycheck is fully dependent on this coming Sunday’s offering.

No, the re-tooling question comes from what I see as the new realities of organized religion. And if what I am reading on various blogs, in books and magazines, and hearing in my discussions with colleagues across denominational lines are any indication, I am not the only one thinking about the issue of what I call “re-tooling the church.”

Like so many other professions these days, there are multitudes of talented and dedicated clergy who cannot find equally dedicated and caring congregations who are able to pay their clergy a living wage. Younger clergy cannot find positions because older clergy who should be retired are staying put in their churches and denominational leadership positions. And you can’t really blame all the older clergy, because–like everyone else–what little retirement and pension funding many of them had has taken a beating. So, they continue to work and serve as long as their health allows–or their congregations or denominational leaders “encourage” them to retire.

Like some other institutions, many of our administrative structures–especially at the national leadership levels–are sorely outdated and too expensive to maintain. I am not saying these structures are all bad, either. They worked at one time when going to church, synagogue, temple, or mosque was just “what people did.” That is simply no longer the case. People are learning they can be–as the title of Humanist Chaplain Gregory Epstein’s book reminds us–“Good Without God”–at least when it comes to being part of a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue. That is, people who believe in God–however they define that word–are learning that their eternal destinations aren’t tied to the support of any religious institution.

All these realities are just that–realities. The challenges I’ve mentioned are faced by religious groups across the theological/spiritual board. I don’t believe they are signs of an external God’s displeasure with us for being too “this or that” (pick your favorite label and insert it here). We may (and do) tweak our worship words and wardrobes. We add and subtract drums, keyboards, and organs. We add and subtract programs as people come and go. Trust me, I’ve done all these things at one time or another in my pastoral life; and I support mixing, matching, and trying new ideas. Still, regardless of what we try, it doesn’t change my core belief that these realities I’ve mentioned may point to yet another evolution in religion and religious expression.

And once again the church is being left behind redecorating our exteriors without doing the hard work of examining our interiors. When I say “examining our interiors,” I’m not talking about making sure we have all the “right” words and beliefs about our  faith to ensure our sweet seats in the afterlife, either. I mean asking questions like, “Why are we even doing this thing called “church” anyway?”

“Why are we even doing this thing called “church” anyway?” Let that question sink in for a moment. If we can’t answer it, we should be concerned.

For me, church isn’t about worshipping an external Deity, or for feeling better about myself after beating myself up during silent confession. As much as I love good music, church isn’t all about the music or the liturgy. And especially as a pastor, I seriously dislike the whole idea of “church as entertainment.” Yes, I strive to make my reflections relevant and I love to use humor. Still, as that great theologian Pink reminds us in one of her songs, “I’m not here for your entertainment.”

Church isn’t about escaping the reality of life that waits for us outside our pretty little white building, either. For me, church at its best is about learning how to support, love, and appropriately challenge one another as we face life–both as individuals and as a community of faith.

So what is it going to take to re-tool the church to not only face, but also embrace this evolution and revolution? I have a few ideas; one thing for sure, however, is professional religious people like me had best be prepared to adjust to our new realities. For our roles–and those of our denominational leaders–will have to evolve for religious communities to continue being relevant pathways to growth and positive living in our world.

Now I think I understand why there are so many “fear nots” in the bible…

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