Thursday, September 27, 2007

Technique, the Church, and the Spirit.

Tripp has been posting on Seabury Western Theological Seminary's Bread for the Journey Conference, here and here. His posts have reminded me that I have been thinking lately about the tendency for "successful" Pastors and congregations to extrapolate what has worked for them into principles applicable for all contexts and congregations. In part because I have been wondering what it might be like to at some point down the road to start another ecumenical congregation at some point in the future. Not that I think this will happen just a musing.

I was thinking about this while in Hollywood. I had a moment while waiting for the bus on Hollywood Blvd. on our way to Club Bar Sinister our second Saturday night in LA when the thought came to me that at some point in the future it might be possible to start an ecumenical congregation and an ecumenical community in Hollywood. I told Kate my thought and I think she thought I was nuts. Perhaps I was, perhaps I am, after all I agreed to attempt it in Chicago! I toyed with the idea a bit and as I did I realized just how little of Reconciler's concrete congregational experience would translate and be applicable in the context of Hollywood. The pace of life and its patterns are so different there, even different from other parts of the metropolis of LA. That night though I was thinking I was coming back to a congregation of 8, 11 counting clergy, unknown to me while gone we would have 24 at a worship service, and 19 show up for a congregational meeting.

The reality that people were coming around and probably sticking around sort of put fuel to the fire of that thought of possibly starting what we started with Reconciler elsewhere, several years down the road. The more I have thought about it the more I have the sense that for the most part the concrete experiences and processes we have followed in starting and nurturing Reconciler would mean little in attempting the same thing elsewhere. What I have come to is that we'd have to begin where we began with Reconciler, with the broad sense of an ecumenical congregation, attempting to bring together three denominations, relying on ecumenical documents like Baptism Eucharist and Ministry to guide our vision creation and pastoral plan. If there is any applicable generalized principle from the experience of Reconciler it would be take a general and theoretical vision and explore how it interacts with its context and then the context it creates as it grows. I do not know if any of the processes we took or if simply starting with 4 people, starting in a coffee shop etc. could be applied to any other context. If I were (and I am not saying I would or will) attempt this elsewhere, I am certain I could draw on our original Pastoral Vision, to guide us, and follow the mostly organic approach to what we have done, and argue that the personalities and talents of the pastors should dictate how the division of tasks is divided up especially early on. But things like starting in a coffee shop then moving to a home (the apartment of the Community of the Holy Trinity and then ending up in the chapel of an existing congregation, or waiting to have a weekly Bible Study, acting like a full fledged congregation even though there are only 4 lay persons, etc., I can't say any of that should or should not be repeated or followed. Some of this has to do with the fact that we have avoided models and experts. however doing so has made me more attentive to doing things in relationship to the realities one finds on the particular ground one finds oneself in, rather than trying to describe and make things conform to the ground realities from elsewhere.
Which means that I could not guarantee that attempting an ecumenical church plant again would succeed elsewhere. It will always be a risk; But what if ecclesial life is perhaps the riskiest and among the most insane ventures ever to be undertaken? What if all the time we spend attempting to ensure our success denies that we are all called to live by faith and not by sight. What if there are no actual technologies to being church, and growing. What if the organic metaphors of Tree and Body tell us more than we worshipers of technique want to believe?

Then I begin to wonder if we don't actually believe in church as something begun and sustained by the Spirit. Most of the evidence I see around me as we in the US struggle with the future of Christianity, and the ever growing marginalization of the churches in our society, is that most of us see church as first a human institution, not something worthy of creedal affirmation: "I believe in the catholic church", or "...one holy catholic and apostolic church." If it is human than we should be always tweaking, attempting to generalize principles that apply across the board etc., in order to find that technique that will allow it to be perpetuated. But we I think encounter something different if the church is not human in origin or invention, but of the Spirit both in origin and life. If this is the case we can move away from reliance on expertise and technique, and we find ourselves nurturing what is not of our making, and of living into a reality that is not our invention.

I wonder if American Christians are so anxious about the future of Christianity or the Church because we no longer if we ever did (as Protestants) believe in the Church as being of the Spirit, and thus we attempt to find that right technique or constellation of techniques that will ensure our survival. When we in fact can not so ensure our survival let alone our success. Because after all it is not ours to ensure.