Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Headless Churchman

It's...John Wesley!  Aieee!
It's almost Halloween, and over the last few days, I've been delving into the deepest nightmare of every paid church professional.  No, not the one where you discover you're not only in the wrong church and have forgotten your sermon text, but you're also not wearing any pants.  That one just replaces the "I didn't study for the test" anxiety dream.

This is a more profoundly existential nightmare, one that isn't just a fabrication of your subconscious.  This terror lives in the real world:

Churches with no pastors.  None.  For pastors, we folk called to a serving and helping profession, here is a physical manifestation of the heart of our most gnawing fear:  You are irrelevant.  You are not needed.

Yet as I work my way through the research phase of my doctoral project, that's where I've gone.  I've been talking with small church pastors, folks who are in the same position as myself.  But I've also been contacting Christians living in other forms of authentic and intimate faith community.  I've talked with longstanding participants in egalitarian house churches, and gatherings of Jesus-followers that are intentionally without formal hierarchical leadership.

Yesterday morning on my way to church, for example, I rode down the dirt roads of the Dayspring community.  It's one of the gatherings that sprang out of the Church of the Saviour, a borderline-legendary community formed by Gordon Cosby.  Dayspring rests on a little over 200 acres of woodland and fields, most of which I got a chance to see as I nosed my motorcycle along gravel roads.

It was strikingly beautiful, as the wind cast leaves down like rain.  A good soul responsible for the facility walked me around and showed me each of the three spaces used for worship.  A spare, clean room with neatly stacked wooden chairs.  A pavilion open on three sides, at one end of which rested a huge stone hearth.  And an amphitheater, set into the woods, the boughs arcing overhead like the balustrades of a cathedral.

And all the worship, in all those spaces, is conducted by members of the community.

No pastors.  No formally trained and vetted professionals, no charismatic and hard-charging evange-epreneur driving the growth.  No One CEO/Manager/Counselor/Leader/Teacher to rule them all.  Just mutual labor, mutual accountability, and mutual teaching.  Is it perfect?  No.  But if the conditions are right, it can work.  It can be a beautiful thing.

On the one hand, this is intimidating, vocationally challenging for those of us in the "organizational" church in the most radical of ways.  On the other, it's strangely, wildly heartening.

It feels, if anything, like the goal.