A colleague walked into Sara’s office one day at the seminary and talked about how going to church was causing him to lose his faith. “So much of church is deadly,” he said.
That’s what we’re hearing from more and more students who come to seminary. They love the church but want to find ways to do and be church “outside the box.”
George Barna of the Barna Institute says that many, many Christians are no longer attending congregational services but seeking alternative forms of church. This “new form of religious community” is of such magnitude that it will “reshape the religious world within the next two decades,” he says. These folks want more of God and less of programmed religion. They meet in coffee shops, bars, parking lots and living rooms.
Barna doesn’t give the full picture, of course, and it’s easy to take exception to some of his research. But it seems others are saying the same all over the place.
There are so many questions we could ask about the way we do church:
Why do we sit in rows, looking at the backs of peoples’ heads, for example? Well-known worship scholar James White observes that it wasn’t until the 14th century that “sitting down on the job” occurred in Western Christendom. Congregations that were mobile became static, perhaps “the most significant change in Christian worship since Constantine.”
Why are we so passive as congregations, sitting there as if we’re watching a performance, allowing worship (the work of the people) to be scripted and done for us, reduced to lines on a bulletin?
Why do the worship planners talk endlessly about the mechanics of worship, about who will do what, where, in what order and with what stage props but rarely spend time together listening to the Scriptures and the Spirit for what God may be saying to us?
Why does the pastor rarely engage the congregation in dialogue about the Scripture, getting us to talk to each other and talk back to him or her with real questions?
Why don’t we get up and move around and have conversations about what’s happening in the course of the service? Why don’t we include the children in those conversations?
Why don’t we have Communion every week, allowing it to become a vital heartbeat of congregational life, like an altar call of recommitment, like a flesh-and-blood encounter with Jesus? And why do instructions about Communion take center stage right at the climactic moment (file up this aisle, down that one, dip this, hold that and let it all be prim, proper and as somber and awkward as we can make it)?
Why are the Scriptures read like they have no soul, no life, read while people are shuffling their bulletins—reading their announcements, slouching in their chairs—read like no one is listening. And why would they, because who cares, and what does it have to do with anything anyway?
Why are written litanies so complicated with left reads here and right reads there, men read this and women that, and young this and old that, until we’re so confused that we entirely miss the point lest we mess up?
Why is music and singing dominated by someone standing up front giving instructions before and between every song, and then, in metronome fashion, leading us like a choir who perfunctorily stands up or sits down. Why isn’t it more like the pulsing of people breathing, dancing, weeping and exalting in sung prayer and praise?
Why do we hear so few testimonials about the difference Scripture/worship/prayer made in someone’s work throughout the week? Why do we know so little about the impact of worship and prayer on how we live our daily lives?
We could go on, but we’ve probably already offended 98 percent of church goers and worship planners. So we’ll quit before we lose that final 2 percent. Perhaps it’s just that we’ve had too much of church as usual—and we know we’re not alone.
Please don’t get us wrong. We love the church with every cell of our bodies (don’t ask us to verify that scientifically). We’ve both attended churches all our lives—of various denominations, depending on where we were living at the time. We’ve offered varying degrees of leadership along the way.
To be honest, Sara, if she had her druthers, would often choose “high church” worship because she loves ancient liturgies. Gerald’s druthers would take him more in the direction of a house church.
But in this we’re united: We both think it’s time to shake off the shackles of church as we know it in order to become more imaginative, surprising, reverential and authentic. That’s exactly what a whole group of us are trying to do at The Table, an emerging Mennonite congregation in Harrisonburg, Va.
It’s hardly a model church. It doesn’t do even a quarter of the good work, education and neighbor care that the established congregations in our neighborhood do. We don’t hold a candle to what they accomplish in programs for the elderly, children, marriage enrichment, church camps and refugee resettlement.
But we’re reveling in “godly play.” We’re experimenting with oxygenating our worship and life together. We’re finding our way as an emerging church—far, far from having arrived. But these are some things with which we are experimenting.
We have a Design Team of leaders, most of whom are young adults. When Virginia Conference wonders whether it’s time for two of us to be ordained, we realize that no, if ordination is to happen, it would need to involve five or six of us.
We have worship hosts for each Sunday who call together a team to listen to the Scriptures, usually on Wednesday evenings. Together they prayerfully discern how to lead the gathered community in worship.
Most Sundays, we “remember who we are” in a brief ritual—a community of prayer centered on Jesus the light of the world; a covenant community who declares our commitment publicly to love God and neighbor—by remembering our baptism.
We sing—oh, how we sing—and sometimes dance. Young musicians are mentored to join in with passion and imagination—drumming, singing, playing instruments. New music is composed and becomes our lifeblood.
We talk to each other in the course of the service, intentionally building in response time to engage with what we’re hearing from the sermon, with circle groups, silence, strolling out on the hillside for meditation, drawing, journaling.
We celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, a weekly community encounter with Jesus; like a steady heartbeat (in remembrance) but also mysteriously new each Sunday in light of our experience with that week’s Scriptures.
Every Sunday we’re invited to eat together in our homes after the service. There we continue conversation about how to live as Christ-followers, joining with God’s work in the world. We have weekly prayers with a few hardy people every Wednesday evening in someone’s home.
One Sunday evening, for example, we had what is becoming a monthly event: Soup & a Question. Around the table with a simple meal of soup and bread, we ask questions (only questions, with none being off limits) on the topic of the evening. Later we gather in the living room to share our corporate wisdom. That week the topic was sexual wholeness: What is it?
Twelve of us, married and single, mostly young adults, had frank conversation about this most private and ubiquitous of subjects. We spoke of how we have a long way to go to overcome our perception of the general church’s prudish reluctance to talk about or deal honestly with sexuality—both its power to horribly harm and to be wholly wonderful.
The day after that conversation, one of the young adults commented to Sara that it was the first such conversation he’s ever had. As it began, he felt like he was walking on a frozen pond, then suddenly falling through into the freezing water, terribly alert, scared, yet keen to stay afloat, only to find that others were there to rescue him and bring him to warmth and safety. The experience, he said, left him a new person, with a deeper respect for the lake and a deeper trust in the people who brought him to safety.
Gerald, in describing a course he teaches at the seminary called “Experimental Congregations” said, “I’m trying to ruin my students for good.” And so it is. At a recent Table Communion, some of us spontaneously raised our Communion glasses in a toast to Jesus.
And we do so here again, symbolically: Here’s to the goodness of the lively kingdom of God among us. No more church as usual.
Gerald and Sara Shenk, who teach at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va., along with musicians Jim and Angie Clemens, started meeting during Advent 2006 as an emerging church.
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