As a twenty-something Christian minister, when I tell people what I do for a living I am often met with quizzical looks and blank stares. It is often unclear whether it is my age, the mahogany color of my skin, or my gender that throws them off the most. When I go on to explain that my call is not to children and youth ministry, but rather to serve those living on the margins outside the four walls of the institutional church they have no idea what to do with me. To be sure, I am much younger than the average clergy member and there are certainly spaces within Christendom that invalidate my ministry because of my gender. When I speak about mass incarceration, poverty, and gender inequity from the pulpit, I can see the discomfort in the pews. The path I have chosen is often lonely and the spaces to be in community with like-minded peers are few and far between.
June 4-7th, 2014, I was lucky enough to find myself in one of those rare spaces, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s Christian Leadership Forum. Against the backdrop of Chicago’s majestic skyline, over 200 young adults, church and community partners, and theological educators gathered to discuss the future of the North American Church. Though distinct in our theological positions and personal politics, one central theme was abundantly clear: The church as we know it is dying. Denominations no longer have the membership or financial stability they once enjoyed. Divinity schools and seminaries are struggling to find their identity in the midst of parallel trends of increasing religious diversity and non-religious affiliation. Ecumenical organizations are cutting staff and programs.
The greatest irony of our current state is that the world has never been in more need of the prophetic witness of the Christian faith. The chasm between rich and poor grows deeper and wider each day. In a world where we grow enough food to feed everyone, over a billion people remain undernourished. A culture of consumption and greed in the Western world fuels ecological and economic disasters globally. The cost is no less than that of life and death. If ever there was a time for Christians to live the words of Christ, words that condemned the excesses of empire and showed compassion for the oppressed, the time is now.
Death is a frightening prospect. It is cloaked in the mystery of the unknown. Yet ultimately, it is an essential part of any life cycle from the individual to the institutional. The dying process of the 20th century North American Church began long before we noticed. As we stand in the midst of a new reality, we have two options. We can deny death’s imminence and become too distracted maintaining existing structures to attend to the worlds needs. Or we can compost. Like the agricultural process, we can see death as an opportunity for new life. A chance to learn from the best our institutions have to offer, honor the past, while bolding forging ahead to a new future.
New models of being the church are already under way to meet the needs of our rapidly changing society. At the Christian Leadership Forum a few weeks ago, several of these models were on display. Models like The Hillman City Collaboratory in Seattle, Washington. The Hillman City Collaboratory is a partnership between Valley and Mountain Fellowship, a United Methodist ministry, and Community Arts Create. The mission of the Collaboratory is to be an instrument of transformation that provides a built environment and programming specifically designed to create community and equip change-makers. The Collaboratory is housed in a multi-use complex that incorporates four unique spaces: the mixing chamber, the co-working office, the learning kitchen, and the community park & garden. Non-profit organizations, a start-up movement, or an individual with a social change mindset looking for shared workspace, program/activity space, kitchen facilities, or greenspace are eligible to use the facilities at an affordable rate.
Hillman City Collaboratory is one example of what the Church of Now looks like. A Church with its roots firmly planted in the wisdom or our ancient tradition, while adapting to the 21st century climate. Death and rebirth are natural cycles. The church has done it before and we can do it again.