Letters to a Future Church
I had been anticipating the release of the book Letters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals (IVP), so I eagerly said that I would participate in a blog tour related to the book. As a collection of letters to the church from both leaders and laity alike, the book lives up to its subtitle as it offers both encouragement and prophetic calls to embrace various ways of being a Christian in the 21st century. What I found most intriguing was that in its intent to address the future church, what this collection provides is a helpful snapshot of the diversity of voices in the North American Evangelical church today. So, for instance, some of the letters uphold right doctrine and culture wars as the path forward for the church and others the embracing of social justice. Some voices both question and mock the perceived problems of the church today while others rejoice in the blessings the body of Christ is offering the world. With authors as diverse as Rachel Held Evans, Tim Challies, Shane Claiborne, and David Fitch these differences are not surprising. At the same time it is immensely encouraging to read these diverse voices coming together under the common vision of imagining what it means to be the church in the years ahead.
While I found a number of the letters personally challenging, the most poignant word for the church (for me at least) was in Peter Rollins’ letter. He writes –
It is not enough for you [the church] to say that you are falling short of your beliefs, for this very confession plays into the idea that there is a difference between your various beliefs and your actions. Rather, if you will permit, I ask you to remember the radical Christian insight that one’s actions reflect one’s beliefs. That you cannot say that you believe in God if you do not commit yourself to what Kierkegaard referred to as the work love.
As part of this blog tour, I was asked to write my own letter to the church which I have found to be more difficult than I thought it would be. There are a million things that I could say to the church, most of which are simply evidence of my own failings and hypocrisy. But as I thought about it over the past few weeks, one theme in particular kept coming to mind which echoed Rollins’ letter in many ways. Hence my letter –
I’m tired. I just don’t have the ability to keep up with the façade of “church” anymore. Oh, I love Jesus, I am crazy about living into the Kingdom of God, and I desperately want to be with the body of Christ, but I just can no longer keep up with the systems and structures that go along with all of that. I know it’s cliché to talk about wanting to be the church as opposed to merely doing church, but right now all I see are the structural façades and they are overwhelming.
It’s not that any one branch of the church is to blame – megachurch, mainline, or housechurch – all seem bogged down with the idea that the church exists for its own sake. The point seems to be to perfect the performance, hone the ritual, grow the structure so that the church can survive and thrive. It’s all (in theory) so that the church can bless its members and be able to serve the world, but all too often it seems like the forms of church become the purpose of church consuming all of our vision and energy. The actions of church don’t reflect the things I claim to believe and yet they demand all our attention. And I just have to confess that right now I am worn out.
I’m not interested in building structures right now. Or defining boundaries or expressing unwavering loyalty to a tribe. Or even in the survival of any group or gathering (even as I respect and cherish the need for such). Instead of constantly shoring up structures, I feel like I need the space to mourn. Not just for my own personal stuff as it seems every structure in the world exists to help me deal with me, but instead to be able to focus less on strengthening particular forms and more on taking the time to lament the fracturing amidst the forms. To listen to the stories of the body that have been kept silent, to hear the groanings of the body that our choruses and chants drown out, to strip away our beautiful facades in favor of sackcloth and ashes. I need the space to hear of the struggles of the body of Christ and the trials of inhabiting God’s Kingdom without the distractions of having to protect a structure.
Jesus said those who mourn will be comforted and that the weary will be given rest, but dear Church, how can we ever find the comfort that comes from mourning or the rest from burdens when we must constantly be working to hold up your façade? So what I simply ask is this – provide space for us, as the church, to mourn; let us please rest.
If you could write a letter to the church what would you say? InterVarsity Press and Patheos would love to hear your thoughts. Now through May the 4th anyone who is interested is invited to submit a letter to the IVP Letters to the Future Church Campaign for a chance to have your letter posted at Patheos and get some of the latest IVP books. So what is the message that you think the church needs to hear?