Building from Scratch

Something that has been sitting in the back of my mind lately:  what if it was my job to plant a new church?  What if it was my job to build a church from scratch?  What would I try to build? 

When you move into the leadership of an existing church, I think it is important to respect the history, forms, and identity of the church into which you move.  As with anything and anybody, some of that existing form and identity will be good, and some of it won’t.  Currently, in the United Church, as I’ve said before, we have some very long standing issues with structural racism, colonialism, a theology that has been wedded to empire and Establishment.  As we have faced a long decline, there is very often a bias in existing churches away from mission and towards institutional survival.  We need to maintain certain structures, buildings, and so forth.  All of that costs time, money, effort, and it is hard to change. 

When you start a church, you have a chance to start fresh.  You have a chance to start focussed.  You can set some new norms, new structures, and you’re not beholden to what has gone before. 

So if I was starting a church fresh, what would I do?  What would you do? 

First off, I need to remember that I embody a lot of the problems that have plagued the church that has raised me, trained me, employed me.  I’m a white middle-aged (can I still say that?) male.  I’m middle class.  I benefit from the privilege, the sexism and racism and colonialism that the church has been supporting.  And I am also very much an insider in the church system.  I don’t think it’s weird to sing hymns.  The church culture that our society is abandoning fits me pretty well.  Maybe I’m not the right person to plant a post-Colonial church. 

On the other hand, though, maybe I am.  If the church is about transformation, well, I need to be transformed.  I have skin in the game, as it were.  And perhaps loving what the church has been will help to build something that is still grounded in our tradition. 

In Richard Rohr’s daily meditation (November 5, 2020) he included a quote from Charles Peguy: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”   I think that would be a good watchword for a new church.  I would want this scratch church to be real and important, both in its spiritual life and in its practical mission.  For me, mysticism is the actual experience of a growing relationship with God and with creation.  Not believing the right stuff (at least, not only), not doctrine and institution, but the experience of a spiritual connection with God and with the world of which we are a part.  Discipleship not simply church membership.  Church would not be a spectator sport, but a participatory thing.  And our mysticism would not be something that remained inward and passive, but it would be something that issued forth in engagement with the real stuff of the world – politics.  There are so many issues that oppress and cause suffering, that threaten this world – racism, sexism, climate change, mass extinction, economic disparity, consumerism…   If we don’t both experience God, and engage the real world, I don’t think we’re a real church. 

I’d want this church to be joyful and alive, though.  I don’t think anyone wants a church of high angst, always serious, always fighting the good fight doggedly, determinedly, joylessly, on the brink of despair over the problems that threaten to overwhelm.  (Doggedly is an odd word.  Dogs seem to do what they do happily, for the most part.)  As real as suffering is, and as daunting as the problems are, I also believe we live in a world of wonders, full of grace and truth and love and full of God.  We do not do justice to the world as it is if we do not engage and address its vast injustice and suffering.  But we also do not do justice to the world as it is if we do not sing and dance and praise.  If love is our calling then let’s love! 

Hm.  This will go way too long for a single blog post.  So the last one on my list for this post is that I would want this scratch church to be experimental.  There are so many ways that my own thinking about church is influenced by what I hope to transform away from.  I think of successful churches as… well… successful.  Growing, expanding.  I have upward mobility on the brain, but I don’t think God is calling the church to upward mobility.  Growth is kind of organic but what kind of growth?  Jesus talks about emptying, serving, dying…  I’d want this church to be open to a kind of growth and significance that might not be marked by expanding staff, more and better real estate, larger budgets, more members. 

So what about you?  What do you think is important for a faithful church, if you could start from scratch?  What’s the mission?  What are the values?  Would you do Sunday worship?  How would you nurture that growing experience of God?  How engage with the world of which we’re a part?