On Recognizing the Church Even When It No Longer Looks, Sounds, Worships, or Acts Like the Church We’ve Known

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on December 11, 2017

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)?

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at https://carducc.wordpress.com/2017/12/11/on-recognizing-the-church/

Published by

Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.