Church! Now for a Limited Time!
On Sundays, when I write, I do so at length on some topic of religion, Christianity, Jesus stuff, or faith. Beware. What if you were only supposed to go to church for a limited time? What if church was only supposed to be relevant for a season of your life?
For many reasons, we assume a church must last forever. A church plant starts small, intimate, messy, and spontaneous. It meets in peoples' homes while cats lick themselves on the rug during a prayer. They meet in apartment clubhouses, school gymnasiums, movie theaters, and other churches' basements. The lack of permanency gives each person in the new church a very crucial role as they need to recuit, pack up, participate, and assist each week.
But then, the church grows. More people start coming. Community outreach increases. Offerings start being taken. People come on staff and get paid. The church pays rent and maybe even buys a building. It affiliates with a denomination. Clergy are ordained. And it keeps...on...growing.
At some point, the romanticism is lost. The clandestine nature of meetings is replaced with shiny marquees. The servant attitude that compelled people to haul in things from car trunks is gone, replaced by permanent sound boards and janitorial staff on payroll. Those who were in love with working hard leave, looking for another new beginning. In their stead are young families and lifelong Christians who enjoy the stability of brick walls and carpeted sanctuaries. And maybe even the right color of choir robe.
And many lament that the old has gone. Where are they attending church now? a founding member may wonder. Why aren't they stil here? Have they backslidden? Of course, other churches are thinking the same thing about this church's new members, but no matter. Churches often trade members like NBA teams trade point guards.
I think this is all okay. I think church is supposed to be seasonal. You don't have to go every Sunday, it's okay to only show up on Easter, and I have no problem if you don't feel like going for a long, long time.
There is a time in our lives where institutionalization may matter. It's different for each of us. Some of us feel called and comfortable to participate in a church with hierarchy, offering plates, and pipe organs. Then, later, through some revelation or change of preference, it's time for smaller group gatherings, opting for guitars over pianos and coffee shops more than Wednesday night spaghetti dinners.
Life is dynamic. We as humans are even more changing. Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? Then why do we expect that a single church can meet all of our needs as we grow and change over time, especially if that church rarely changes over time?
I've participated in it all. In high school and college, I was a product of the structure and wanted nothing more than to continue its legacy for a career. I worked towards it, only to have things shift, leaving me wanting nothing to do with tradition or systems. After a few years of study, thought, and learning, I found a new fit. Beginning my own faith community in my living room allowed me, my wife, and a handful of others to express our faith in a way that wasn't threatening to others and that was challenging to each of us. In the bond of that experiment, each of us grew into the grace and knowledge of Jesus and God through community, forming friendships and bonds that revealed to each of us something bigger than ourselves.
And then my daughter was born, shifting my understanding of and need for church again. The priorities of being a good dad now take precedence over those of being a faithful church attendee. Therefore, my wife and I are nomads again, finding spiritual solace through many non-church outlets, the chief of which is the smile on our daughter's face.
Peter Rollins has begun a new church community/experience. And, at its onset, it has a shelf-life. While the details are still coming together, the plan is for this community to only last a year. When that year is up, the church is done. Disbanded. No affiliating after that. There will be no offerings, no leases, and no services once a year has passed.
This will be interesting and inspiring to watch. And it makes me wonder - what if all churches had an expiration date? What if churches knew the date of their last Sunday gathering before their first one began?
For starters, it could make each community more effective. If a church - much like many nonprofits - knew it had a limited time to make a real cultural impact, I think it would spend less time bickering, finding people to kick out or silly stands to stake a claim on. Like people with terminal diseases who are only given months to live, each day becomes important. What would a church support and rally behind if it only had a few years to do something meaningful? I'm guessing it would stop debating gender-based ministerial qualifications and start to find ways to empower all people to serve others.
I'm guessing it would stop drawing lines in the sand based on sexual orientation or petty differences and begin to work together to do real good, like feed hungry people and heal sick people. It would care less about elections.
And what would this mean for you? The church hopping wouldn't stop, but that would be okay. Some churches are great to take your kids to; others have dynamic youth programs that are a better fit for your teenagers. Some churches offer fantastic and meaningful Sunday morning experiences while others are better at providing volunteer opportunities.
What it means - both now and in my imaginary world of churches with "sell by" dates - is that specific churches and all churches in general may only be relevant to you and to a community for a short time. So be it. Find one, plug in, and don't feel bad when it no longer provides you with a meaningful experience. It doesn't mean that God is done speaking to you. It just means God's voice is now best heard in a different place.