The End of the Big Blue Church

Walter Russell Mead is a writer that mainly focuses on politics.  However, in today’s blog post, he focuses on the church or I should say specifically the mainline Protestant church.  His post, which is wonderously titled, “The Holy Crap Must Go,” is basically saying that it is time for a spring cleaning in the church.

He notes that mainline churches are built for another time, being part of the “blue social model” that guided America from about 1945 to 1973.  But while America is changing, these institutions have not changed. This is how he describes the local church:

Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination).  Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners.  And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year.  The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try.  People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.

This sounds a like the church I am working at now. Luckily, we have sold the building, but we are still tied to that structure and tied to how we did church in 1955. And let me tell you, it’s damn hard to change.

What is also interesting are how many churches feel that they have to have a full time pastor. If they can’t afford that, then the church feels it has to close.

I’ve chosen to work part time and work full time at my other job (at a regional level, no less). The church could not afford me full time, and it allows me some freedom in my ministry. What has been interesting is when I tell people that I work part time as a pastor, they tend to look at me as if I came from Mars. If one is not working full time, then you aren’t real it seems.

But some churches can’t afford a pastor. Most pastors get about $40K or more, so very few churches can afford that.

Mead goes on to attack other parts of the mainline church including national offices and seminaries.

So, what is his idea of a church for the 21st century? Here it is:

What would we do instead? Scale down and build a mission-centered church. Perhaps instead of the large dioceses stretching over several counties or in some cases whole states, a ‘diocese’ should consist of a collection of house churches or other congregations in a single town or urban district. A bishop might oversee half a dozen house churches — and hold down a day job in the secular world. Paul did.

In this model, few or no priests would attend anything like the formal seminary programs that now exist. Education for ministry would be less formal, and more ‘hands-on’ — apprenticeships rather than graduate school. Candidates might work under the direct supervision of an ordained priest or bishop, take correspondence or internet courses to meet some basic requirements, and then be ordained — without any expectation that ordination would lead to a life’s work as a paid full time religious professional.

Freed from the crushing financial burdens of maintaining large physical plants, expensive and unproductive regional and national bureaucracies, a professional establishment and a network of professional schools, the Christian congregations of the United States might actually be able to accomplish something. Who knows? They could concentrate on nurturing the spiritual lives of their members, reaching out to the unchurched, and serving their communities and the world. They could operate charter schools, teach English to immigrants, develop cooperatives for day care, and reach out to the aged. The laypeople would no longer hire professionals to carry on the life of the church and to lead it. The gap between ‘leaders’ and ‘led’ would diminish; initiative would pass from structured positions of authority to the people at large.

On one level this kinda scares me: partially because I came through the seminary system and it hurts to think it might have been all for naught. I also worry about opening the door for anti-intellectualism in not having seminary trained pastors. However, I also have to think about my friend Tammy. Tammy is the pastor at another Disciples church in town and is not ordained. In the Disciples tradition, there are Licensed Ministers, people who don’t have seminary training, but do go through a program like what Mead describes to prepare them for ministry. Tammy didn’t get a Master’s Degree but is also one of the most learned pastors I’ve met. The fact is, I know a lot of licensed pastors that are better prepared for ministry than most ordained pastors and to be honest, there are times I think it might have been better to be a licensed pastor instead of going all the way towards ordination.

But I also think that this having a clergy do all the “important stuff” has stopped the regular folk from doing anything. The current system has made them feel powerless and looking for some pastor to save them.

But in the history of the Disciples, the pastor didn’t have all the power. In many cases, churches were started without settled clergy and might get a traveling pastor every so often. In the early beginnings of the Disciples, pastors were not needed for a church to be church.

So, maybe this future isn’t so scary. I think parts of it are here now and we need to lift them up and strethen them. And maybe we need to let some parts of the old system just die.

This is all scary to me…but it’s also so damn hopeful. I guess that’s what faith is all about, huh?


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