Ziggy Stardust and the Future of The Church
a note of unlikely hope for those who still care about Christianity
In the Year of Our Lord 2017, I gave the same lecture basically all over the place because it was the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church (sparking the Protestant Reformation) and I am like, some people’s token Lutheran. Anyhow, at nearly every gig I would be asked some form of this question: Nadia, what do you think church looks like in the future? I’m pleased to report I was disciplined enough to not say “I’m just hoping we all will have jetpacks”.
What I did offer was a (likely dissatisfying) one-word answer:
What did I think the church in the future would look like?
My answer: “DECLUTTERED”.
Welcome to The Great Decluttering.
Yesterday I read a piece in The Atlantic1.
If it’s ok with everyone, I’ll just skip the arrogant thing of saying here’s what he missed - here’s why he’s wrong - here’s why YOU’RE wrong if you read that and agreed with him.
Instead I will simply point out two places where I think he was spot on, first in his assessment of the “workism” and isolation that plagues our society and how the church is often positioned more within that same culture than apart from it:
The problem in front of us is not that we have a healthy, sustainable society that doesn’t have room for church. The problem is that many Americans have adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.
The tragedy of American churches is that they have been so caught up in this same world that we now find they have nothing to offer these suffering people that can’t be more easily found somewhere else. American churches have too often been content to function as a kind of vaguely spiritual NGO, an organization of detached individuals who meet together for religious services that inspire them, provide practical life advice, or offer positive emotional experiences. Too often it has not been a community that through its preaching and living bears witness to another way to live.
As someone who feels surrounded by the institutional anxiety of declining mainline denominations, I find myself thinking about this: how everything that we see slipping away and (understandably) fear losing - real estate, budgets, executive staff, membership, colleges and camps with our denominational brand on them, influence in society - are perhaps signs of A kingdom, but maybe not necessarily signs of THE KINGDOM2.
Which means, we could lose them all and the church would still be fine.
…what we see slipping away and (understandably) fear losing - real estate, budgets, executive staff, membership, colleges and camps with our denominational brand on them, influence in society - are perhaps signs of A kingdom, but maybe not necessarily signs of THE KINGDOM. -Nadia Bolz-Weber
What if we only had 5 years?
There is an apocalyptic track on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album that is about the end of the world; it expresses the chaos and sentiment when an alien comes to Earth and tells us we’ve got 5 years. That’s it.
And it makes me wonder: What would it be like if Ziggy Stardust came to Earth and told the church we’ve only got five years? What if we knew that there was absolutely nothing we could do or not do that would change it, that in five years our congregations and denominations and colleges and camps would all be gone. What if none of our efforts were put into trying to survive?3.
Just for a minute, imagine with me what that kind of freedom would look like! (After all one of Luther’s favorite verses was Galatians 5:1 - “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…”)
Well, for one, if the game is over, we would have no reason to try and look good. We could continue to wear our yoga pants all day, so to speak. We’d have no reason to keep a mortgage on a building we can’t afford. We wouldn't have to meet on Sunday mornings even. I mean – who cares? Let’s meet Tuesday nights or for lunch on Friday. Here’s something: We could stop kissing up to toxic people just because they give more money than others. We could serve the neighbor. Sell all we have, give it to the poor. Melt down all that brass and weave our expensive paraments into public art. We would have no sacred cows. Nothing to be defensive about. No reason to be offended. So we could make jokes when we pray and baptize people in carnival dunk tanks and put a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font. And you know what else? We could cancel every single committee meeting and spend time in each other’s homes. I think rather than arguing about communing children we’d find that children are exactly who we want to receive bread and wine from. We’d sing together more. We’d laugh more. We’d cry more. We’d celebrate Eucharist more and in what we used to think were inappropriate places like gas stations, bus stops, old folks homes - anywhere but a big church building whose mortgage we can no longer afford.
We could be a people who laugh; who do not think that needing God is a failure; a people who sing unselfconsciously; a people who are unafraid of suffering and unafraid of joy. And, ironically, I think this is something people, not just the ones who are already members of congregations, may just need more of.
In Jake Meador’s Atlantic piece, he too seems to find some hope in what, on the surface, seems a bit bleak for the church:
The great dechurching could be the beginning of a new moment for churches, a moment marked less by aspiration to respectability and success, with less focus on individuals aligning themselves with American values and assumptions. We could be a witness to another way of life outside conventionally American measures of success. Churches could model better, truer sorts of communities, ones in which the hungry are fed, the weak are lifted up, and the proud are cast down. Such communities might not have the money, success, and influence that many American churches have so often pursued in recent years. But if such communities look less like those churches, they might also look more like the sorts of communities Jesus expected his followers to create.
Here’s the irony – I believe that the church - free from preserving itself, free from defending itself, free from having to promote itself - might be something others would very naturally want to be a part of.
I mean, as I’ve said many times before, people don’t seem to leave the church because they no longer believe in the beauty of Jesus and his teachings. People leave the church because they believe in the beauty of Jesus and his teaching so much that they can no longer stomach being part of an institution that says it’s about that and so clearly is not.
…people don’t seem to leave the church because they no longer believe in the beauty of Jesus and his teachings. People leave the church because they believe in the beauty of Jesus and his teaching so much that they can no longer stomach being part of an institution that says it’s about that and so clearly is not. -Nadia Bolz-Weber
We all know that no one is going to successfully attract new people to the project of preserving a dying institution. That might be our need, but it is not a need of the people in this hurt and broken and beautiful world.
Don’t mistake me. I am deeply, deeply grateful to the institution of the Lutheran church for it has faithfully care-taken the sacramental practices and theological framework of grace that has saved my life.
But the institution is not that in which I place my trust, or that to which I give my heart. That belongs to the Gospel.
So if I wish to leave you with anything it is this: We who love the Christian faith have every reason to be hopeful. Because people still matter more than things, and Jesus is still among us making peace, and forgiveness and mercy matter more than ever, and nothing that really matters can be taken from us.
We don't need Ziggy Stardust to tell us we’ve only got five years in order to be free. I promise you we already are.
(When reading his article, it occured to me that Meador was setting his gaze more toward American Evangelicals than at progressive Mainline Protestants and Catholics - so I quickly posted a poll to my readers here asking who attends church and who doesn’t and who used to but does no longer. The responses (2.5k comments in 24 hours…) were overwhelming and I will post more about that in the next couple days - but suffice to say, the vast majority of folks who responded about why they left the church did so for reasons entirely missing from Meador’s Atlantic piece.)
That is not to say that this way of being church was not faithful, or was somehow WRONG, just that the church can transition out of that particular institutional reality and still not be “dying”. There is so much beautiful ministry happening on the congregational level for which I still have a great deal of respect.
Once again, I suggest Timothy Beal’s book, When Time is Short: Finding Our Way in The Anthropocene in which he suggests that IF the human species has a limited time on this planet, then perhaps we should adopt a palliative care model for humanity and reduce the suffering we can, learn to endure what we cannot and focus only on what is most important. Because, as Beal says, what matters most when time is short, IS what matters most.
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