I'm sitting in a cafe basement of a Wallingford neighborhood church, a curios observer of "emergent" Christianity. The coffee is unpriced - you pay what you want or can - the music is coffee-house type rock with hints of Christian devotion, and the crowd is my age (early 30's, some older, a few younger), tee-shirted and goateed and soul-patched (I wonder if I fit in with my full beard and button-up shirt). Jeans are the pants de jure. (But we're almost all white, and no one from obvious poverty or wealth.)
We are gathered for a "Neighborhood Mission Learning Day" - featuring local ministerial highlights and the internationally-recognized minister, author and blogger Brian McLaren (pictured above). And it begins with all of hus hanging out together in a coffee house - in line and gathered around tables and couches, the din of conversation growing as people introduce themselves, sit down, pass a baby around. We all recognize each other by the name tags we all wear - right away we have something in common: some shared commitment or desire, some solidarity. Still, it is a coffee house, and a church, which is I guess the point, and I wonder what possibilities for this kind of thing there are in any of my congregations - make church casual, easy to enter, enjoyable, serve good coffee... find what brings people but use that to bring them to a community that might change their lives.
Part of me questions where discipleship is here, in this sheep in wolf's clothing, church playing secular. But then... this is just the basement. There's still the sanctuary and classrooms above. This place is about entry-level Christianity - safety and community, sharing, acceptance and being yourself. At any time, one can go upstairs or come back down - wherever the needs of the moment are met. What a great idea. And it seems like it takes young adults to do this kind of thing - which makes sense since this is a young adult kind of thing.
And, the coffee house is an opportunity for the church to be a good neighbor. People don't need to be converted or baptized as a result of the coffee our croissant served here in order for the place to serve the purpose of bringing the kingdom of God a little more into our midst - creating a little safe haven, a space for community, a place to hang out and just be.
What would happen if church started every Sunday with an hour and-a-half of coffee and conversation - at four or five in the afternoon, even! - and then went into a dynamic worship? Young families could probably make it more easily. Young Adults and teens might find it more interesting and easier to come to (and if the coffee and music is good enough they might even invite their friends). It's just an idea, inspired by a cup of joe in the basement of a church.
The thing is, I look around this hip, happening place - complete even with a fun-looking kids play area and a study for quiet conversation - and I want to come to church here. I have no idea about their theology or worship style, but I want to come back here. The comfy couches and tables, the active conversation, the good music and lighting. This church did a really classy job on this coffee house, and I already feel like my registration fee for today has been worth it.
Of course, it could be the caffeine (I forgot to ask for decaf and am nearing the end of my latte). But that might be another example of what we're talking about: caffeine serving the Lord. Will wonders never cease?
I am so disappointed with myself for not bringing more people to this! Brian McLaren's talk centered around examples of Christians being converted to mission. He pointed out that "Christian" is mentioned three times in the New Testament, while "disciple" is used over 260 times. "Christians" aren't the solution to the world's problems, "disciples" are. And discipleship is an activity, not just a state of being.
He described a shift in Christian vision that is still taking place, from "missionary" work that saw the goal as getting people to join the church to "mission" work that works for the good of the world, that asks what would our world look like if it were just a little more like the Kingdom of God, and works to bring that about. How do we convert our churches from being organizations that suck people out of the community to being organizations that transform people to be salt and yeast sent into the community?
McLaren's stories were of his own encounters around the Christian world were tremendously inspiring. They have reaffirmed to me the link between the Being of God and Mission in the world. To be a disciple is to be a good neighbor - an actual neighbor, with neighbors around my home, my church building, and strangers afar. My partner, Christie, and I are reconsidering an old commitment we had made when we moved into our new neighborhood (but that has since dwindled) to get to know our neighbors and eventually have them all over for dinner. I'd like to just start at the end of the block and work our way down.
I spoke with McLaren during a break and he asked my denomination. When I said "Community of Christ" he seemed surprised, and with a smile he told me that he had just returned from several weeks in Australia where he spent some time with CofCers, and even has a friend who is a long-time member. He seemed genuinely excited about our denomination's stuttering embrace of missional thought, and it was very encouraging to me that he knew about my small church and that he had positive associations with it! Wonder upon wonder.
But on a more personal note, as we heard from pastor after pastor of successful emergent ministry, dynamic and actively involved in missional work in relationships and justice, I began to ask myself whether I needed to bring this message to my own congregations. Should I just leave this new generation of church to those who are already doing it successfully, rather than trying to get my resistant denomination to do something they don't want to do? What is my purpose in supporting these congregations? Should I be just helping them do what they want, or should I be helping to shape what they want and what they think they can and must do? If churches want to attract different kinds of people, they're going to have to different kinds of things, they're going to have to change, and change is often what people do not want to do. I would like to be that prophetic/agitating voice calling people to the new and justice-oriented work, but I also have to be the pastoral voice nurturing people where they are.
I came to this job with an organizing model in mind: identify where people are and then move them one step further. I am coming to realize that pastoral ministry is still an organizing model but on a very long timeline.
What a fantastic day. I have pages of notes and ideas. I'm still thrilled that McLaren knew and liked our denomination. But most of all I am filled with a hope and enthusiasm. Other established denominations are doing this work, too. We are working with Christians and trying to make them disciples. We are trying to convert churches to engage the world in genuine, neighborly, gracious ways.
One thing McLaren said stands out to me still: the church can only be saved by the community outside of it. We often think that the church is the locus of salvation, and that the community needs to come to us to get it. But American Christianity is in a position where we need to meet our neighbors, find out what their needs are, and in reaching out find our salvation.
Amen and amen!