Stripped-down church: what can be done?

Cam Harder is a well-respected, senior Lutheran Professor of Systematic Theology, now retired. I tell you that now because he also has a mischievous sense of humour and, once you read the story I am about to tell, I wouldn’t want you to think, “Who on earth is this irresponsible young maverick?”

I was once at a conference where Cam led a workshop, and this is the way it went. He started by inviting us to think about our communities and:

to imagine that overnight, across denominations, God killed all the clergy, struck every church with lightning, and burned them all to the ground, then evaporated the bank accounts of every congregation. We are left with a smoking pile of ash in the centre of town and a funeral to attend.[1]

Having shocked us to our socks, he then divided us into groups, and asked us to consider the simple question: “So what is the church now?”

Once we had recovered a little, and could begin to think about the unthinkable, the conversation became surprisingly lively. The only problem was that clergy would keep speaking, and had to be reminded—gently, of course—of the circumstances which had triggered this conversation.

One person said, Well, I have a big living room, and I love to host people. Another said, I can play guitar, but I’ve never played it in church. Could that be useful? A third said, I’ve been leading a Bible study group for years, and I could easily help other people learn how to do that. Within minutes, we had a sense of a community of lay people coming together to share their gifts, many for the first time.

Cam then directed us to think about our community. What are the needs out there? Someone pointed out that the hospital is in desperate need of volunteers. We knew there were new Canadians needing help getting settled in the city, and not able to speak much English. There were also a lot of unemployed young people. The list of needs was long.  We had just never sat down and written them all down before.

So might there be some connections between what we had to offer and what the community needed? I asked Cam to describe the kind of thing that emerges from these workshops:

Once they get past trying to rebuild the church or resurrect the pastor, some wonderfully creative ministry ideas always emerge. They tend to be community-connected, outward-facing, and people-intensive. One group developed a partnership with the local hospital, offering a ministry of music, healing touch, prayer, and conversation. Another drafted a plan for a community pig roast, advertised in hair salons and coffee shops, to draw the whole community into a discussion about its spiritual well-being. A third imagined partnering with a local coffee shop and bookstore to offer a community kitchen . . . and weekly explorations of such topics as the spirituality of hairdressing, home care, and other community-building roles, treating them as ministries. A fourth designed a “Care Farm” in which troubled urban teens could be taken out of group facilities and placed on ranches in the area to work with horses, hoping that isolation from drugs and friends in the city and the positive affection of animals might help in their healing.

He points out that none of these options is unrealistic. Why? Because they have been put together by people who know one another and what they are capable of, and who also know their way around the wider community. They can actually do these things.

Even better, these people do not need motivating to do these things by someone from outside. This is their vision, constructed of necessity from the grassroots up. 

We should add too that many of these things will be low-cost. To offer my home, or my music, or my leadership skills, even my time, does not cost anything. Well, in monetary terms anyway.

You can imagine the scenario that results. Home-based groups, meeting for Services of the Word and mutual encouragement. Finances channeled into local mission projects. Lay leadership a vivid reality. The church growing a reputation in the community as a group that exists for love of others. And Eucharist? Maybe there is a priest somewhere not too far away who miraculously survived. But this is just an exercise of the imagination, isn’t it? It’s only a game.

It is, and yet it is more than that. Cam’s exercise is also a sobering reminder that all too often we equate “church” with buildings, money and clergy. We less often think of it as a gathering of apprentices of Jesus, working with God in God’s mission to renew all things. Cam’s observation, having done this exercise many times, is that even with the blessings of buildings, money in the bank, and living clergy (thank you, Jesus!), the benefits of the exercise are still invaluable:

Seeing that they have many options for ministry, participants say that they feel much less anxiety about their future and more energized for mission. They see that ministry can take many effective forms, no matter what the size of their congregation or community. Without a single new dollar in the offering plate, without one new seat in the pew—in fact, having experienced a catastrophic loss of buildings, money, and clergy—they move in their own minds from being poor to being rich.

In the new world that follows the present pandemic, the Professor’s exercise might be a good one to try.

[1] Direct quotes are from his chapter, “New Shoots from Old Roots: The Challenge and Potential of Mission in Rural Canada,” in Green Shoots out of Dry Ground: Growing a New Future for the Church in Canada, ed. John Bowen (Wipf and Stock 2013), 57-58.