In a provocative September 2017 article, church consultant Sarai Rice of the Congregational Consulting Group asked if a church that doesn’t look, sound, worship, or act like a church—or at least, the way most of us assume a church should look, sound, worship, and act—is really a church. This question, of course, is fraught with inherent bias and circular reasoning; as Rice herself noted, whenever it is asked, it is usually worded in a way “that anticipates a negative response” (Sarai Rice, “But Is It Still A Church?,” Congregational Consulting Group, September 11, 2017.)
In all likelihood, those who ask this question are not guided by pernicious motives, or trying to be hypercritical. In the United Church of Christ, Committees on Ministry and Conference staff may ask, “Is it really a church?” if they are flummoxed by the diversity of ministries and congregations they oversee.
Then again, asking, “Is it really a church?” may be about resisting change and innovation in a congregation’s worship and ministry; it may be saying, “We’ve never done it that way before—so change back, and do it the traditional way!!!”
So Rice asked: “Is a congregation a church if it has no pastor and no intention of acquiring one, only different ‘pulpit supply’ preachers each week, with [uneven] preaching skill[s and] theological knowledge?”
“What if no dollars are being spent on [mission, or outreach, or on] anything other than the building and the weekly preachers?”
“If all that’s left” are eight people who gather every other Sunday “to sit and chat, is it still a church?”
Some of us might say these are not real churches. But as church scholars, consultants, and denominational officials remind us, the church is changing and rebirthing itself, phoenix-like, in ways we may not understand. In his 2015 book, Beyond Resistance, UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer describes various iterations of “Church 3.0” that meet on farms, in yoga studios, in bowling alleys, in homes, and in re-purposed church buildings, and are “pastored” by women and men who don’t have, and don’t care about having, any formal theological education or ecclesiastical authorization, and who combine elements of Roman Catholic mysticism, Evangelical piety, Buddhist chanting, Islamic dietary law, Hindu rituals, Native American shamanism, and/or Druidry in their celebrations.
Journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald tells the story of Simple Church, a new church in Grafton, Massachusetts, in which “congregants gather for a sacred meal every Thursday evening, the table conversation serves as the sermon, and freshly baked bread provides nourishment, communion,” and a steady revenue stream. “There is no weekly bulletin,” and participants “need not profess any confession or statement of faith. Nor are they expected to be members of solely one church; many also belong to [more traditional] churches.”
In light of such manifestations of Church 3.0, I believe that the important question we must ask is not, “Is it really a church?” but rather, do traditional churches—the churches of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—work anymore? As David L. Odom, the Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School queried, “what do we do when the ways we [worship and do church] bring us comfort but no one outside the church”—not even our children and grandchildren—“is paying attention” (Dave Odom, “Name Your Mission, Develop Strategies and Then Evaluate Impact,” Faith & Leadership, September 5, 2017)?
Throughout Western history, traditional churches sort of worked. They were centers of philanthropy, worship, and education. They were where children were baptized and learned about God, and where family members married, worshiped, and commemorated their dead. Churches were gathering places where people shared community news and town gossip. And in early America, they anchored town squares and village greens; they taught and enforced morality, and what it meant to be a citizen.
But today, schools, social service organizations, television, and the Internet perform many of these functions as well as, or better than, churches ever did. So I wonder if traditional churches—and traditional ideas about church—still work?
I wonder about the concept of church “membership,” and how churches should relate to their non-member congregants. Should busy pastors devote most of their time to visiting and caring for members, and less time to non-members? How do traditional ideas about church “membership” enable or inhibit congregants’ sense of “belonging?”
I wonder about the way we do “search and call.” I wonder if traditional church leaders ever feel that they are pouring “new wine into old wineskins” when they call new pastors—particularly Millennial Generation leaders who think and behave differently from, and have different values than, their Baby Boomer congregants. These differences are stark, and may affect relationships, theology, and worship–everything important. For example, Millennial leaders may be more accepting of gays, lesbians, and transgendered people, and more willing to advocate on behalf of Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, and undocumented immigrants than Baby Boomers. They may be more tolerant than their older congregants of non-Christian faith traditions, and may engage more easily with “nones” and the “secular” world.
A culture clash may also occur when a church calls an older, 40-something ordained or licensed minister as its pastor—particularly if the new minister comes from an urban/liberal church or seminary, but the calling church is rural and/or culturally conservative. Congregants may have “lifestyle” concerns about their new pastor if she or he is divorced, or is single and actively dating, or is living with an unmarried partner, or if the partner or spouse is not a churchgoer or a Christian (or for that matter, is a practicing Muslim). And while we would not expect to find sexism or homophobia in UCC churches, the new pastor may encounter undercurrents of such prejudices and discrimination.
I also wonder about the (idealized) ministry model of full-time pastorates in American mainline churches. As MacDonald notes, “Shrinking attendance and lea[n] budgets have forced thousands of congregations to pare back the[ir pastors’ hours], and many wonder how effective ministry can happen when clergy work 30, 20 or 10 hours a week.” Even so, “this shift has encouraged congregations [to] innovate [and find] new vitality by re-imagining the roles of clergy and laypeople.” And pastors—especially part-timers—are learning that they do not have to attend every (or even most) church meeting(s) (G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “A Move to Part-Time Clergy Sparks Innovation in Congregations,” Faithandleadership.com, March 21, 2017).
Similarly, medium- to large-sized congregations that are considering calling a full-time associate minister may find it more cost-effective to call two or three part-time associate ministers, each of whom can focus like a laser beam on youth, Christian education, elder-care, or say, ministry to their community’s burgeoning Latinx or Asian population.
What is paramount is that “congregants view [the] transition to part-time minist[ers] as an opportunity for renewed ministry rather than as a defeat or failure.”
“Church 3.0” will look, sound, worship, and act different than the traditional church we’ve known—but Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). Christ’s Church will continue to be a place of community and worship—a place where people like you and me encounter God.
And yes, it will really and truly be the Church.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.