Reflection and Discussion Guide for Bearings, “Becoming Church”

The articles in the recent “Becoming Church” issue of Bearings have a different character than many of the articles we’ve published on the topic of the change in the 21st century church. We might say that, up until now, many articles have been descriptive; that is, they have described what the changing church “looks like” – who is attending (or not), what spiritual needs are being met (or not), how buildings are being creatively used (or not), what music is being heard (or not), are there full-time pastors in the pulpit (or not), how social media and other technology is engaged (or not). Bearings writers have described research and trend lines for readers in service of opening spiritual, liturgical, technological, and theological imaginations to different ways of being church. They have described for us cultural, technological, and generational influences on current expressions of church.

When not descriptive, a good number of Bearings articles on the 21st century church have been otherwise prescriptive; that is, they have offered specific instruction, guidance, and encouragement as to how the church could and should be about the business of seriously reflecting on the ways it expresses itself as church. Writers have sometimes suggested how faith leaders can and should leverage change in their local church – either in ways that preserve some traceable continuity to that which has preceded or, alternatively, to embrace discontinuity, to release those expressions that are no longer meaningful, potent, or engaging. But the focus largely has been on being church – whether that focus has been descriptive or prescriptive, whether the focus has been on expressions that preserve continuity of practice or on expressions that demand the acceptance of discontinuity.

The authors in this series see church and landscape together, they see reality through the church. They are reading between the lines of the descriptions of being church and making our subjective experience of the landscape visible.

This recent series, however, is substantially different in its focus on becoming church. It is not a subtle difference by any means, but it does, nevertheless, take some concerted attention to hold fast to the distinction. Like an optical illusion, it takes effort to keep one perspective of an image from giving way to another. The photo images that accompany this reflection and discussion guide do the best job of illuminating the nature of the difference between talk about being church and talk related to becoming church. The photos are of an art installation created for a competition by an architectural firm in the Netherlands. The optical illusion poses an essential question for the 21st century church: is it a church disappearing or is it a church appearing? The installation is called “Reading Between the Lines,” and an excerpt from an article about it in an architectural magazine describes it in this way:

Depending on the perspective of the viewer, the church is either perceived as a massive building, or dissolves — partly or completely — into the landscape. Those viewers that look from the inside of the church to the outside, on the other hand, witness an abstract play of lines that reshapes the surrounding landscape. In this way, church and landscape can both be considered part of the work — hence also its title, which implies that to read between the lines, one must also read the lines themselves. In other words: the church makes the subjective experience of the landscape visible, and vice versa.

The question then is not really whether the church is appearing or disappearing. Instead it is an image of the paradox of the both/and, the church both appearing and disappearing. It invites the felt experience of a paradigm shift in not looking at the church, but looking through it. Rather than describing how expressions of the church are or should be changed under the influence of the surrounding landscape, the lines of the church reshape the experience of the landscape. The authors in this series see church and landscape together, they see reality through the church. They are reading between the lines of the descriptions of being church and making our subjective experience of the landscape visible. Having read the lines, they see how the landscape makes our subjective experience of the church visible.

This is all to say that rather than looking at the church and its varied expressions, these writers are looking through the church. Reading the lines of history with a vocabulary heavily dependent on the images, narratives, texts, and symbols of the Christian tradition, the authors read between them, read through them, such that rather than being expressions of the church, the lines create interpretive lenses through which the church becoming is anticipated. This is a change in the relationship between too-familiar words and the realities to which they point, such that if we read carefully, we are invited into the paradigm shift, the paradox of the truth of the church simultaneously disappearing and appearing.

GRANT – “Singing the Past into the Future: Evensong as the Voice of the Faithful Becoming”

In this article about the worship practice of Evensong, Maxwell Grant neither describes nor prescribes the practice specifically. Instead he reflects on the practice of Evensong by way of comparison to the use of alternative liturgies – with jazz bands and rock bands – popular in the 1980’s and 90’s. These alternative liturgies were a time-stamped expression of the church, a way of being church as the church adapted worship practice to the culture, but a way that was “hard to sustain once the initial novelty of the form faded.” By contrast, the practice of Evensong, “a form that has hummed its way through the Christian tradition for centuries,” makes visible the deep ache for the subjective experiences of community and the holy, visible in the people’s speechless wonder and tear-stained faces. Reading between the lines, Maxwell sees through the church (through the feature of a very old, but less-often used liturgical tradition) to the experience of community and an experience of beauty, of loveliness, that the church has always been expected to open. It’s not that Evensong is the only way this can happen. All well-worn and familiar liturgical practices probably did this at some point in their earliest iterations. They, too, had some power to move people to tears, overwhelm the senses with beauty, open a portal to the holy, and offer a sense of wonder and mystery in its presence. But if we are honest, in a searching a fearless kind of way, we have to say that traditional liturgies as currently practiced do not often have this effect any more. To be sure, they offer other significant goods – which is precisely why Grant’s parishioners feel ambivalent, like they’re “cheating on” their traditional service. But how often do they open us, experientially, to speechless wonder, to breathtaking beauty, to tears, to the holy?

Grant’s essay focuses attention on the becoming church as the church in which being in community in the presence of the holy is, through the senses, viscerally experienced, enlivened by a return to and the retrieval of the church’s “deepest, riches, and most precious traditions’?

  • Where/when have you had the experience Grant describes as being opened by his congregation’s practice of Evensong? Where/when have you been similarly moved?
  • What specific features of the Evensong liturgy do you think are most powerfully influencing the community’s experience? How does Grant account for the difference in experience? How do you account for it?
  • What do you expect to, need to, hope to experience in worship? What liturgical elements open that experience to you?
  • Reflect on Grant’s question: Are there ways, in your own setting, that you have grown so attached to worship as you knew it that any other ways of worshipping are all but unimaginable for you now?
  • Reflect on Grant’s question: Is your community trying to share the gospel or just your particular family version of churchiness?

CAMPBELL/SHEPHERD – “Becoming Digitally-Integrated Church: How Our Online Lives are Shaping Religious Practice Today and How Churches Can Respond, Connect, and Engage Online and Off”

Building off Heidi Campbell’s research on the impact of early forms of online religious communities on offline churches, Campbell and Troy Shepherd read between the lines of both the offline church and the online community, articulating what is seen in looking through them rather than merely at them.

Consciously and intentionally shifting views of the optical illusion of church appearing/disappearing illuminates how the nature of community has shifted over the past few decades. Disappearing is “community” as people gathered together on the basis of a shared institutional affiliation or shared identity; appearing is “community” as constituted by personally driven, changeable, more self-regulated connections. Between the lines we read the need and desire for experiences of relationship, mutual care, acceptance and being appreciated, of connecting in real-time, and communication that has a more intimate character. Between the lines we read how the disappearing church structure, with its patterns of interaction based on institutional affiliation and identity, has become less relevant and more foreign to how people are actually living, relating, and experience personal and communal identity and affiliation.

  • Consider your own patterns of social interaction, digitally or in-person. Where do you see evidence in your own life of the claim that how you experience community is more personally driven, changeable, and self-regulated? How do you experience the truth or reality of the nature of community changing?
  • Consider your congregation’s patterns of social interaction. In what ways do its patterns seem foreign to how you otherwise engage experiences of community? In what ways are its patterns of interaction coherent with how you otherwise engage experience of community?

For a long while, being digitally connected was a way of being church, an expression of church that many have continued to think of as a choice among other ways of being, a preference of expression to be engaged or not. But seeing through the disappearing/appearing church to the landscape beyond, it is clear that there has been a shift, the passing of a tipping point, that rather than some kind of digital connectivity being a choice a community could make, it is itself constitutive of what it means to day to be in community. As digitally mediated conversations have become a whole generation’s primary basis of communication and community, it is the offline community that is the extension of the online community, not the other way around.

  • This is a paradigm shift – like the shifting perspective of what is seen in an optical illusion? How do you react to this? How does the image of the appearing/disappearing church work as a symbol or image of this process, help you understand it, help you interpret it?

If it is true that relationships are increasingly moderated by technology, and that a community’s website is likely to be the place of first encounter between an individual and the community, then the changing nature of community – community becoming, church appearing – suggests that the website be place of relationship, mutual care, acceptance and being appreciated, of connecting in real-time, and communication of a more intimate character.

Information on a website is not connection.

  • Think of your patterns of engagement with various kinds of social media. Then look at your church’s website. Does it present information or engage a connection? How could your community’s online and offline expressions more authentically respond to your desire for relationship, mutual care, acceptance and being appreciated, of connecting in real-time, and communication that has a more intimate character?

CULMER – “Finding the Face of the Church Becoming: Can a Renewed Pluralism Nurture a ‘Church on the Way’ that Engages Young People?”

Ronald Culmer looks at the church, assessing the reality that despite the church’s efforts to move forward, racial issues are still deeply systemic in the church and the racial/ethnic presence in the church and its leadership continue to be profoundly imbalanced.

But Culmer is also looking through the church, through the reality that vast majority of mainline and Catholic churches in the United states are monocultural; he’s looking through the church to a landscape where the majority of the United States is non-white.

Looking through the church and out onto the landscape on which it sits occasions the shifting of perspective on the optical illusion of the disappearing/appearing church. Culmer challenges readers to fix their gaze on the church appearing, to focus on the pluralism of the landscape, and in so doing, dawn a new paradigm in which we see the church becoming. The effort to fix one’s gaze on the church appearing is the very effort to which Culmer calls the believing and the faithful, in the words of Bishop Curry: “to intentionally, purposely, liturgically rededicate ourselves to the way of Jesus, the work of racial reconciliation, the work of healing and dismantling everything that wounds and divides us, the work of becoming God’s Beloved Community.”

The key is the effort, the intention, the purpose. Looking through the slats of the appearing/disappearing church – and therefore through the church such that it becomes a framework – we better comprehend salvation on the landscape as “communal, not personal.”

Culmer elaborates the idea of a pluralistic worldview with the idea that the necessary paradigm shift is a move from thinking about individual persons to thinking about people in the plural. A pluralistic community is characterized by the acceptance, understanding, liberation, recognition, and appreciation of differences. Morevoer, as highlighted by Culmer, Kondrath, and Batts, pluralistic worldviews and pluralistic communities utilize differences.

  • What does that mean to you? How do you understand the direction to utilize differences in a community?

Culmer asserts that in a pluralistic church, becoming church means these things:

  1. Kinship is not enough, differences must be recognized;
  2. Standing in solidarity with a different other is not enough, courageous acts and courageous leadership are necessary;
  3. Liking a person from a different race is not enough, appreciation must be demonstrated systemically;
  4. Diversity in at the level of the congregation or judicatory is not enough, institutions must utilize difference in places of power.

Culmer’s insights give us much fodder for reflection:

  • Reflect on the degree to which your community is monocultural. Is it being church or is it becoming church? If your faith community is becoming church, what is the evidence for it?
  • What does it mean to you to recognize differences?
  • How is courageous leadership different from standing in solidarity?
  • What are the obstacles – personally and communally – to demonstrating appreciation systemically?
  • What would developing a pluralistic worldview require of you? Of your community?

Reflect on the image of the appearing/disappearing church, the church becoming, in light of Culmer’s closing statement: “That leaves me with hope, because God is the space between us.”

DRESCHER – “Becoming a Cosmopolitan Faith (Again): Practicing Christianity beyond Belief”

Elizabeth Drescher invites us to return to a practice of Christian cosmopolitanism – “an approach to engagement that begins in an understanding of our shared human dignity and our obligation to do good beyond the confines of our own communities, with people very different from ourselves, and in places very different from our own.” Her attention is not on how or what the church is being, and it actually isn’t even on the church becoming. To embrace Christian cosmopolitanism as an approach to engagement is to not see the appearing/disappearing church as an optical illusion that requires an effort to fix the perception in one way or another.

“Christian cosmopolitanism invites to see ourselves, others, and the world around us in ways that are at once new and firmly rooted in the best of our traditions. It allows us to connect with those who are perhaps most different from us in belief and practice but whose difference may enliven and illuminate the beauties of our faith,” Drescher says.

This is to walk into to the appearing/disappearing church, rest your forehead against an iron slat so that you don’t even see the slats anymore, but instead peer out from within, between two slats, seeing nothing but landscape. It is to be open to the unframed experience (the unjudged, the un-critqued, the un-interpreted) experience of the other with a receptivity to a light ready to illuminate the inner beauty of our faith.

“Because the need for works of mercy, compassion, and solidarity with those in need has hardly diminished along with the declines in belief in God or affiliation with religious communities,” she argues, the framework of the church is not necessary to see those needs and not necessary to respond to them.

Drescher states that her encouragement to embrace Christian cosmopolitanism is not a strategy for saving the church in institutional terms, but because it is our calling as co-creators of Kingdom of God. This “present-and-not-yet-sacred-reality” is exactly what is signified by the image of the appearing/ disappearing church. But is a sacred reality appearing or disappearing? Premised on a belief in our common humanity in the image of God, looking through the church out onto the landscape means we see through a “church” lens, a spiritual frame; it is what helps us to see everyone on the landscape imago Dei. To join with whatever person of good will we might to offer care, nurture healing, and bring about the kingdom means that we look at everyone on the landscape from within that religious and spiritual framework.

Even if that means we must tolerate the ambiguity of whether the church might be disappearing.

Drescher’s provocative essay calls to reflect on how people in the church see ourselves in relation to other religions: One mountain, many paths? Many mountains, many paths?

  • Which one best represents how you think about the relationship between the truths found in other religious traditions, and in the diverse and dynamic modes of spiritual practice among the Nones?
  • What are the implications of embracing one perspective or the other?

Becoming Church, digital church, digital religion, Digitally Integrated Church, Gils Van Vaerenbergh, Heidi Campbell, Maxwell Grant, Troy Shepherd

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.


Cover Image: Johan Neven, “Sunglow Church” (Nov. 28, 2016). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.