November 19, 2009
Over the years we have seen many schemes for organizing and thinking about differing kinds or types of churches. Anthony B. Robinson, author of Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (Eerdmans, 2008) has published an article called “A New Apostolic Moment in Yale Divinity School’s Reflections (Fall 2009; p.8-10) in which he offers another typology.
He sees congregations falling broadly into three kinds. Civic Religion represents the kind of church people join as part of their civic and community life, a way to be engaged in the community, an expected norm of sorts. At All Saints’, in contrast to much of North America, we still enjoy a good measure of this kind of motivation for engaging the church. We see it made manifest when we tend to drift away from worship once our careers have reached their peak and our children are safely launched in life. We see it in a desire to hold on to an understanding of confirmation as he final act of baptism, something The Episcopal Church abandoned officially thirty years ago with the publication of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. We abandoned such thinking in favor of ideas such as the one we teach at All Saints’ that confirmation is the outward expression of an adult affirmation of lifelong commitment and the empowering of the Holy Spirit for specific ministry. The shorthand we use for this is ‘ordination to the laity’. While the church no longer thinks that confirmation is necessarily for everyone and is certainly not a kind of ‘get-them-done-so-they-can-get-on-with-life’ deal we still have plenty of people with the very reasonable (if often unexamined) desire to give their children what they had regardless of their level of participation in their own community of faith. We tend to handle this graciously, urging commitment and attendance but avoiding haranguing or chastising. Cultural change of this sort is well under way. It is inevitable and necessary given other changes in society but it is not brought about over night. What Robinson call ‘civic religion’ we have been talking about as the assumptions of Christendom, and age and reality that is still very much with us, but at the same time clearly passing away.
The “culturally accessible” church is most often associated with the movement that emerged in the 70s, flourished in the 80s and will be with us for a long time, namely the megachurch. The mentality of such congregations which might be characterized as ‘out with the old; in with the new’ has been around, certainly in North America since some of the earliest revivals and is arguably a basis for all Protestantism. At All Saints’ we have resisted this to the point of snobbery and our most recent congregational survey suggests that we will be unambiguously committed to our fairly formal and arcane worship for a long time to come even as we want to find ways to make it more welcoming and accessible to newcomers and visitors.
The third kind of church according to Robinson is best characterized as ‘communities of formation’ or communities of discipleship’. These may be congregations, new or old, large or small, conservative or liberal in theology, formal or informal in style. They tend to find themselves in some kind of tension with the society that surrounds them and see themselves as a kind of ‘apostolic outpost in the mission field’. They are neither characterized by comfortable familiarity (civic) or instant accessibility (culturally accessible) but by invitation and challenge, a generally higher expectation of commitment than some churches of the past, especially those who are emerging from Christendom kicking and screaming. In one way or another, this third type is the least easy to define and is clearly the direction that we will be taking as we follow our soon-t- be-ready-for-general-release ‘strategic plan for ministry’. As the direction is turned over to staff and ministry leaders to consider and bring into effect, we will begin to choose to emphasize those ministries that hold out the hope of our experiencing greater liberation in Christ marked by a greater capacity to roll with the warp and woof of life. (Traditionally these are expressed as the ‘fruits of the Spirit’.) We will be focused on engaging God and Neighbor as our city becomes increasingly multi-faith, multi-cultural and with it more divided and conflicted, in need of the kind of leaven we will be prepared to become. All this will be rooted in our worship, traditional or yet-to-be-developed, in which we remember and enact the foundational story of our Christian faith, orient ourselves to that which is of ‘ultimate worth’ (worth-ship), and are in turn shaped and challenged by God.