I recently read The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry. He uses the majority of the book to explain how the industrialization of American life has led to a decline in cultural values, community, and overall quality of life. Somewhat comically, he uses the final chapter of the book to put forward solutions to the complex web of problems he has laid out.
Having spent much time thinking on the issues that the American church faces - also in large measure having to do with the philosophy and effects of industrialization - I was encouraged and intrigued by some of the parting words that Berry puts forward in this book. As a church we face the problems of nominalism among believers, programatic structures that are impersonal and cannot account for individual needs, flashy 'seeker-sensitive' services that pat us on the back and let us know that we're ok - all the while Christ calls us to love the Lord our God with our whole self and our neighbor as ourself; to pick up our cross and follow; to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. The solutions for the church, particularly in efforts to reach a post-modern generation are not easy...but, perhaps they are simple...
It remains for me to suggest public changes that are necessary to bring the better way to realization. This is the most fearful part of my task, for what I have described at such length here is a big problem, and it is the overwhelming tendency of our time to assume that a big problem calls for a big solution. I do not believe in the efficacy of big solutions. I believe that they not only tend to prolong and complicate the problems they are meant to solve, but that they cause new problems. On the other hand, if the solution is small, obvious, simple, and cheap, then it may quickly and permanently solve the immediate problem and many others as well. For example, if a city-dweller walks or rides a bicycle to work, he has found the simplest solution to his transportation problem - and at the same time he is reducing pollution, reducing the waste of natural resources, reducing the public expenditure for traffic control, saving his money, and improving his health.
What if the Church didn't have to spend so much of her time, resources, and energy on flashy programs, compelling sermons, or big buildings? Do we trust that a growing love for God will naturally overflow into a deep love for people? What I'm getting at is that the Church's calling to love and bear witness to the Gospel is often over-complicated by an ever-expanding structure of programs and jobs. We 'professionalize' the faith so that it is the task of the minister to show us how to contribute to the structure. The American church has cast her net wide, consequently the mission atrophies to getting 'butts in seats' rather than walking alongside people, knowing them, and modeling what it looks like to follow after Christ in all of life. We often don't have time for this because we are so busy maintaining our structures. Yet our biblical model of the early church is that they were distinguished, not by their polished programs or impressive buildings, but by their radical, sacrificial love. It is counter-cultural within the American church to slow down, narrow our scale and trust in the exponential growth of the kingdom - the mustard seed that starts so small yet slowly takes over the whole garden.
The quiet, small solution I have been exploring is to invest in a 'missional community.' Some like to call it a house church - the jury is out on choice terminology. We gather in a home; we share a meal; we share what the Lord is teaching us; we study the Word together; we remind one another of the Gospel as we participate in the Lord Supper; we pray; we sing. And yet I know that church doesn't 'happen' as we gather together once a week. Rather, we are the Church - Christ's body, laboring together unto wholeness in Christ.
And so, I put forward my simple solution: Church is an identity, not an event.