Sunday, May 29, 2011

First Presbyterian Church of Anywhere

As things rumble and trundle their way towards October 30th, I find myself looking again at the likely possibility of having nothing to do after that date.  Well, there's always something to do.  You can fill a surprising number of hours with laundry and yardwork and errands and straightening up and writing and the like.   It is, rather, that the odds of finding a community of faith within my own denominational neck of the woods are slender.   And moving, well, it isn't an option I can take.

Within the Presbyterian church, a pastor who can't move because of family or relationships is a "tethered pastor."  Life ain't easy for the tethered pastor.  If the congregational ecology of an area is supersaturated with Presbyterian pastors and those seeking to enter the area, as it is here in DC, the odds of moving into the traditional pastoral role are slender.   Chaplaincy or interim work or supply preaching often appear to be the only options.  They're blessed ones, if that is your calling.  But if it ain't, well, tough.

And tethered folks, well, we're not the only ones who struggle to find a place within the denominational system.  If you're a woman, even though the denomination is welcoming, well, things can be tough.  If you're older, congregations have less interest.  If you're African American or Latino or Asian-American, there are unspoken cultural boundaries.  And if you're a noob, you're likely facing an uphill climb.   In a recent survey of PCUSA congregations, there were just a titch under 130 congregations willing to consider a freshly-minted seminary-trained ordination exam-passing Candidate Certified Ready to Receive a Call.   There were more than twice as many folks looking.

The church knows this.  There are some excellent efforts by the good folks in the church to try to connect fledgling pastors with congregations in rural areas and small towns.   There are efforts to be inclusive.  But there are limits to how far those connections can be made.

So I find myself wondering...what about other options?   More pointedly, I find myself wondering why it is that bright-eyed bushy-tailed fired-up folks for whom the call of God is still freshly ringing in their ears aren't encouraged to think about founding a community, first and foremost.   I find myself wondering why wonderful intelligent graceful and Spirit-filled folk are just cooling their heels in the hallowed halls of process, when the world aches for a more gracious and inclusive understanding of the Gospel.

Church planting can be, of course, a brutally unforgiving vocation.  If your goal is to do the little-bible-study followed by the storefront followed by the gigantonormous multi-campus MegaPlex in which you are the beaming pearly smiled purveyor of all things Jesus, you're going to find it hard going.   Big Box Jesus Stores are really, really established brands now, kids.

And there are plenty of denominational churches already out there, with buildings and staff and programs for folks who want that sort of thing.  Nuthin' wrong with that, but just try to suggest to a local church that's struggling to fill its pews that you're going to build another church nearby.  Oh, Lordy.  Planting in the shade of mature trees requires a different plant, one that doesn't compete directly but finds a fertile place in the spaces in between.

Instead, what I find myself contemplating more and more is the intentionally buildingless church.   That means you grow a church that never, ever, ever plans to have a building.  The little house church or cell seems better positioned to speak into this generation's yearning for interactivity and relationships, and it's a place where the oldline rarely treads.   There are structural reasons for this.  Church as place and program is woven deep into our denominational DNA.

House churches have their issues too.  They need connectional counterbalances in place to prevent them from becoming insular and cliquish.  They need informed leadership that is committed to equipping and growing and teaching, so that they aren't just a place to hide your Gospel incompetence away from the world.    They need to have a public face, and to be willing to engage in mitosis now and again to make space for the new.

But even with all of those limitations, it still seems that a cell-based model has potential.  It'd be a more primal church, one that eschews facilities and programs for relationships and community.  That means fewer hours anguishing with committees over boiler rooms and parking lots and carpet color, and more real Kingdom work.   It could be a more flexible church, in that a pastor serving a network of cells could measure out just how many cells they could manage.  Ordained with a working spouse and three young kids?   Bi-vocational?   Three, four, or a half-dozen stewardship-committed cell groups could let a called soul teach and proclaim and pastor, yet still have time and flexibility and balance.

A primary household income it could not be.  And it wouldn't be easy.  But it would be pastoring, really and truly.  And isn't that the point of the calling?

I've thought about this before, and the name "The First Presbyterian Church of Nowhere" came to mind. But that's a bit too emo.   Probably why I like it so much.   But then I thought, what about "Anywhere?"

Anywhere is a good place to be a church, isn't it?