Sunday, September 12, 2010

Are we dinosaurs? church and mission today

A few weeks ago I was asked to speak to the South Australian Heads of Churches. My topic: Are we dinosaurs? A brave question for a group to ask itself.

A bit of research and I discovered that the first dinosaur bone “appeared” in 1787, an enormous thigh bone poking out of a New Jersey Creek. It was sent to leading American scientist, Dr Caspar Wistar, who paid it little attention. It was stored and eventually, got lost. (For more on the “finding of dinosaurs”, see Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

It’s weird thinking about dinosaur bones always being there, yet only somewhat recently, to have been “discovered”! Which then got me thinking about what “bones” might church’s, and church leaders, we leaving? And what might people make of our “bones” if they stumbled across our remains in the future?

Like the communion table. Hey, how weird, a table with no chairs. Hmmm. Looks like a separate type of species called eucharistosaurus.

Or the baptismal font. How wierd is that, some people used to keep a bird bath inside! Did that have “bird” doors? Or was it some wealthy playpen, in which the entire building is simply a birdcage, walls and roof in which the doves (Biblical reference intended) are encased!

On a more serious note, as part of my talk I offered a survey of some of the responses to being labelled “dinosaurs.

Survival theologies
These in many ways assume the dinosaur will continue to decline (even face death). So they reflect on that. These can be as simple as “2 or 3 are gathered”. These can be more complex, perhaps various theologies of exile, which suggest that the church is moving to the margins, and so link that with various Old Testament motifs.

An example might be David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009.

“Even so, it may be the case that Christians who live amid the ruins of the old Christendom – perhaps dwelling on the far-flung frontiers of a Christian civilization taking shape in other lands – will have to learn to continue the mission of their ancient revolution in the desert, to which faith has often found its necessary, at various times, to retreat.” (241)

Ostrich approach
These can be as simple as “she’ll be right” or “God will look after us.” They can often be our subconscious reality, given the sheer demands of people – funerals at a congregational level, fights and factions at a statewide level. It requires extraordinary focus to keep carving out the time for mission not maintenance.

Go back: good old days theologies
There are a variety of attempts to encase the past. It might be the good old days of the 1950’s. Or it might be the good old days of the early church. It might be a moment of liturgy, for example the Radical Orthodoxy Movement.

Climate changers and Culture-makers
These include words like “Fresh expressions” and “Missional Church.” They point to a changing climate and encourage the church to adapt. There are numerous examples. Some smell of pragmatism, while others represent deeply thoughtful theologies and methodologies. Let me suggest some categories:

a) Lifestyle questions, how to live?
These are questions of human flourishing, of being human in regard to sexuality, and gender, to birth, growing, parenting, death, dying.

John Drane quotes the example of being asked by a priest: How can we get the people to come to the altar? His reply “How can we take the altar to the people?” It’s a clever response, but invites crucial questions regarding the sacramentality of the claim that the earth is Lord’s and everything in it.

b) Belonging questions, how to relate?
This includes the tasks of forming community and of how we live in relationship with others. A Bible text like Luke 14, which invites us to think about tables as a place of Christian ministry. Some examples might be

  • John Koenig’s Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation, “we have seriously undervalued our church meals, both ritual and informal, as opportunities for mission … to realize this potential, we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, must have our eyes opened by the transforming presence of Christ at our tables.”
  • Art collectives – public visibility through installations, driven by an focused group.
  • New-monasticism – daily patterns and rhythms.
  • Liquid church approaches, like morepraxis in Melbourne, with people gathering around activism.

c) Belief questions, what makes sense?

Can we find ways to pay special attention, to nourish and encourage what Daniel Pink describes as “creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers … artists, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers.” (Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, 1)

Posted by steve at 04:48 PM

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