Part 4 in a series. Read Part 1.
Different kinds of liberal churches for different kinds of people
If you think about it, there are several different kinds of liberal church. Let me try to enumerate some of them: (1) churches which offer programs — a music program, a children’s program, a support group, opportunities for leadership development, etc. — these are churches whose participants tend to be like consumers; (2) churches which are centered around a person — as in the 19th C., the 28th Congregational Society in Boston was so focused on the person of Theodore Parker that when he died the congregation did too; (3) churches which convey social status — “That’s the church where all the best people in town go”; (4) churches which offer spiritual activities, typically Sunday morning worship services, where such spiritual activities are limited in time to Sunday mornings and in space to the church building; (5) churches which are well-intentioned social clubs, not much different from Rotary Club or the Masons. Each of these is a perfectly valid kind of church.
However, there is at least one more kind of liberal church. These are the liberal churches which function as a kind of non-residential intentional community. In the Emerging Church movement, the parallel to this kind of liberal church would be the missional church; that is, a church in which the people lives out God’s mission for them. The Emerging Church conversations thus describe this kind of church in theological terms, where I have been approaching my description from an organizational perspective. (Of course the theological perspective is inherent in my organizational perspective, for I am describing an organization which incarnates religious visions.)
I prefer to take the organizational perspective, at least to start with, because I think that perspective helps us to understand that I am trying to describe a continuum that stretches from an intentional residential community at one extreme, to an intentional community that functions non-residentially. In the middle are those intentional church communities which sometimes gather together (or at least significant portions of the church gather together) in a residential setting, perhaps an overnight retreat. And in between the two extremes, we can find a wide range of temporary residencies: from churches where the entire core membership of the church lives together in a residential setting for a period of time; and from there we get ever closer to completely non-residential communities, as the various subgroups living together in residential settings decrease in size, decrease in time spent together, and increase in homogeneity. “More residential” does not imply “better”; in fact, a completely non-residential intentional community may be better than an intentional community which tends to exclude persons because of the residential requirements.
And this leads us to consider that intentional church communities do not always incarnate religion in useful ways. I have been critical of some Unitarian Universalist youth conferences which may have appeared as temporary intentional religious communities, but which were actually inward-directed, and which therefore were not self-transcending. Most church retreats are similarly not self-transcending. Mission trips, where subgroups of the church live together doing social justice work of some kind, are more likely to be self-transcending, but if these subgroups do not have a good understanding of the religious reasons why they are doing social justice, then they are not incarnating religious visions, but instead are simply liberal do-gooders who happen to spend the night together while they’re doing good.
For some of us, the ideal kind of liberal church is somewhere on this continuum of intentional community, where the church embodies most or all of the characteristics in the list above. Many of us who prefer this kind of church do not feel the need to live together, although we do need to share meals together and do self-transcending work together; we need to spend enough time together that we become a true community, which implies knowing each other reasonably well.
I think it makes sense to call such churches “missional churches”; not that we share the theology of the Emerging Church people who originated that term; but the term does express our desire to live out our religious mission in the world. In my case, that means lives out the Universalist vision of God’s love extended to all persons (and indeed to all beings). Will Shetterly has expressed a related (but slightly different) approach, saying, “The church should be the place to keep the coals of justice warm and ready to be fanned at an instantâ€™s notice.” You may have yet another formulation — the essential point being the same, that the local church exists to live out a religious mission in the world.
The liberal missional church can serve as a kind of postmodern monastery. In this postmodern era, many of us consider retreating from the world problematic at best, escapist at worst — e.g., we are not going to solve ecological disaster by forming little self-contained communities, because we know that that it is impossible to be “self-contained” and somehow separate from ecosystem-wide disaster — so we are not going to be very sympathetic to Alisdair MacIntyre’s call for new Benedictine monasteries. We are going to be much more sympathetic towards James Luther Adams’s understanding of ecclesiola in ecclesia, with the theological and justice implications in that term — although it seems to me that eventually our understanding of what we’re doing is going to have to evolve beyond what Adams said decades ago.
And those of us who are invested in the missional liberal church are going to be impatient with some of the people who prefer the other kinds of liberal churches. I know that I am most impatient with those who prefer churches which offer programs, and those who prefer churches which are social clubs. When I hear things like “My needs don’t seem to matter much at church,” and “The times of day sucks for me,” I have very little patience because the person who says this kind of thing obviously believes that church is about meeting his or her needs. By contrast, I believe that the church represents an intersection between what I have to offer to the world, and what the world needs for healing.
I recognize that mine is not a popular viewpoint in a postmodern society that is so heavily dominated by consumerism, so that we are constantly brainwashed into believing that our lives should be focussed around having our needs catered to. Therefore, I know that the missional liberal church will never be particularly popular. I also know that I will have to tolerate the majority of people in liberal churches who have been brainwashed by the consumer culture — which means that trying to have an actual missional liberal church seems almost like an impossible fantasy. What keeps me going is contact with the few people who understand church the same way I do.