Church Dreams

About the Author
David Wagschal

Our series on homosexuality has got me thinking a lot about two things: truth and the church. Maybe more specifically, it’s got me pondering truth about the church.

One of the things we are trying to do on this blog is to offer a place where we can engage in some creative thinking about what the church is and where it’s going. We want to do this by providing a space for honest, open reflection.

This has got me thinking “ok David, so what really are your own beliefs and feelings about the church these days?”

Here I have to confess that I’m pretty conflicted. I’ve had both very positive and very negative experiences of the church.

On the one hand, the church has unquestionably been a force of harm and pain in my life. As those of you who have been reading this blog can probably gather, many of the most hurtful and disappointing experiences of my life have been directly connected to the church.

But, by the same token (which is maybe not so obvious from this blog), the vast majority of the experiences of my life that I really value and cherish – experiences and memories of real community, of love, of care, and so on – have also been connected to the church.

So, on a personal level, it’s a very messy question for me.

I don’t know if this is true for others as well?

Theoretically though, things are a bit clearer for me. I’m pretty sure we are in a major period of transition, and one of a magnitude that probably hasn’t been felt since the great Constantinian turn1 itself.  The synthesis that has been in place for about seventeen centuries is now being challenged in profound ways. A huge and growing question mark is being placed next to the whole notion of the church as a monolithic, professionalized quasi-polity deeply embedded in the very structures of society and the state – i.e., as an “established” institution.

Unfortunately, the result of this is that the churches are experiencing a high degree of uncertainty and insecurity. This creates a lot of institutional pathology. And many Christians are now feeling a strange disconnect between their actual lives and beliefs and the patterns and rhythms expected or implied by the old synthesis. It’s almost as if fewer and fewer people really feel completely at home in the churches anymore…

This is a bit of a bummer. I think a lot of people, especially church leaders, have gotten caught in the “crunch” of this change.

Yet, weirdly, it’s also a bit exciting.

Why? Because it means that we may now be on the cusp of something really quite new. It suggests that a real transformation and metamorphosis may be just about to take place. And we may be the first Christians in literally ages to have an opportunity to profoundly shape the future direction and form of the church. Which is actually pretty cool.

So despite my personal ambivalence about the church, I’m also strangely optimistic. I see our current malaise as a kind of creative challenge: what could the church be? What should the church be? If we could close our eyes and imagine what the church could be in the future, what would it look like? We may actually see it in our lifetimes.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to explore exactly this with a little exercise in “imagining the church” – presenting my church dreams, as it were.

In particular, I’m going to explore four characteristics of church that I think are going to be key as we move forward.

When I dream of the church I dream of a church that is…

1) Non-controlling, non-coercive. What I mean by this is a church where the power structure is fairly loose, flexible, and “flat”, and where the compulsion to control others, or society, or culture, is very minimal.

2) Real. Another pervasive element of church life today is a sense of the fake, of artificiality, of keeping up appearances. So much of our energy seems to be devoted to trying to be something we’re not. It’s like we’re going through the motions of earlier generations’ church lives. No. We need to start finding ways of doing and being church as ourselves. There can be no pretence, no façade.

3) Confident. To me, churches today are pervaded by fear or grief – or both. You can almost smell it. This tends to result in either a kind of despondency or the bluster of a variety of extremisms and sectarianisms. All of these are problematic. Restoring the church to a calm, even-keeled confidence in itself and its message is key.

4) Resilient. The churches are way too invested in the intellectual and social structures of worlds that are long gone – or rapidly vanishing. The result is a “house of cards” feel to the infrastructure of so much of Christian belief. Whether it’s neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, creationism, or the social prejudices of a world long past, the church keeps backing itself into intellectual corners that ultimate discredit and obscure the message of the Gospel. We need to articulate the Gospel in a way that is much less intertwined with any particular world views or social conventions – while yet remaining open to many. The result will be a much less fragile, much more resilient Christianity.

 Next week: Learning to Let Go: Towards a Church that Doesn’t Need to Control Everything and Everyone

  1. The “Constantinian Turn” is a term used in church history to describe the official adoption of Christianity by the Roman empire in the 4th century. It marks, at least symbolically, the beginning of the later widespread pattern of “established” state churches. []

Comments 2

  1. I agree with your dreams for the church and most of your observations, but I have a problem with your observation of the church as being coercive and controlling (#1.) I think that you are painting with too broad a brush stroke here. Is every denomination that way and every congregation? Certainly many are working towards a more progressive orientation all around. My personal and long time experience of the church (ELCA and ELCIC) is not that of its being controlling or coercive through its power structure. I am currently attending an Anglican church where I see more control, particularly in terms of liturgy and status of clergy, but I also see their desire to be open to change. Semper reformanda is alive and well in places!

    1. David Wagschal Post

      Thanks for your comment, Beth! Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that _all_ churches are controlling and cohercive. Just that I want the church to _not_ be this way. I think you are completely right that many of the liberal protestant churches have made great strides in this area. This is a much bigger issue for the more conservative/traditional churches.

      – David

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