I went to a meeting last Friday with Bishop Schnase and a dozen or so other church leaders, clergy and lay, from around the Kansas City area. We were invited to talk together about the Missouri Conference's inclination to change - change structure, change financing, change outlook, just change in general. It was supposed to be an informal chat among friends, with no binding decisions or recommendations for action taken. This afternoon, I sent the bishop and a couple of conference staff members a letter in response to the meeting. It is kind of long, but I hope you take a couple of minutes to read it. It kind of sums up some of my lament about the contemporary church. Here it is:
Dear Bishop Schnase,
Three days have passed since our Friday meeting, and I’m guessing you have received several “my two cents” letters from everyone else around that table at Woods Chapel. And, well, here’s mine!
First of all, I am sincere about my invitation to come hike a trail sometime when you are in the KC area. I try to make it a part of my Sabbath rest to surround myself with as much of God’s creation as possible, and have scouted out several pretty nice locations in the region. If you would like, give me a call and I’ll meet you somewhere.
Second of all, thank you for the time you have given in holding this series of meetings around the conference. I can imagine how daunting it must be to enter into Episcopal leadership of a conference in a time of uncertainty such as this. I hope the five meetings you have scheduled accomplish the purposes that you have in mind.
With that said, I am afraid that I rather “tuned out” during the afternoon portion of our meeting. I apologize. I was listening to the conversation, but did not have much to contribute myself. I thought that my rising frustration with the tone of the meeting would have come too close to the surface, and I wanted to keep that in check. In my opinion, the conversation degenerated from a constructive discussion of the health of the conference into a “Change or Die” conversation. Ironically, “Change or Die” conversations directly expedite the demise of the organization having them, as they are more often than not self-fulfilling prophecies. And when the organization having them is the church, matters are even more dire.
When the church has a “Change or Die” conversation, it has great theological implications around the doctrine of resurrection. In short, do we believe in the power of resurrection or not? If so, why do we fear death at all? What if Jesus had said, “I had better change something about what I’m doing or else I’m going to die”? The church, as the continuing incarnation of the body of Christ in the world, need not worry about its own death, and when it does, something is seriously wrong. It is not a matter of saving the church; it is a matter of saving souls. It is a matter of faithfulness to the evangelistic mission to which God has called us, faithfulness even unto death. And for a people with a healthy doctrine of resurrection, the possibility of death is not a source of fear. In fact, it is not even a concern. This may be too radical to mention in mixed company, but perhaps we are called to continue doing what we are doing until we “die,” simply because what we are doing is right. I believe God will find a way to work in this world, because I believe in the power of the resurrection.
Furthermore, as I tried to point out at the meeting, the question at hand is not “are we ready to change?” but rather “how are we going to respond to the changes that are already happening?” [Someone] asked the question, “Are we all agreed that we need to change?” and I tried to push the question a little. Most people at the meeting seemed to think I meant that the world is changing already, so the church had better change, also. But that is not what I said at all. I mean to say that the church is changing already, and the question is how to embrace that (or not). [A pastor at the meeting] asked me, “Don’t you want to make a mega-church in North Kansas City?” and I did not answer him, because his question is a symptom of the problem I see. My answer to that question without a doubt would have been “absolutely not.” Making mega-churches is not the mission, the mission is to convey the love and grace of God to all creation, making disciples of Jesus Christ in the process, and if God desires it, perhaps a mega-church will bloom. The church has changed, and the businesslike mega-church model just isn’t going to be primary any more. The trend of the eighties and nineties was toward large, high-intensity organizations that were demanding, strictly organized, and centered around belief, morality, and membership. That has all changed. Smaller, more intimate communities of faith that are open, relaxed, and center around experience, encounter, and relationship are the present trend.
And so I need the conference to be the connection. I need to be connected to the churches in my area, my district, and my conference. The relationships we build as the connection allow us to do ministry in ways that individual congregations are unable to do alone. Faithful participation in the connection is a sign of a healthy congregation, just like our other five categories. My major disconnect from Friday’s conversation happened when I realized everyone there was in “Change or Die” mode. I hope that somehow we are able to completely reframe the conversation to remove any mention of the notion that, if we don’t do (x) the congregation/conference/church is going to die. I hope we can move back to starting the conversation by asking the question, “What is the best way to convey the love of Christ to a world that so desperately needs an encounter with the living Spirit of God?”
Thank you for taking the time to read my two cents. I want you to know that you have my full support. As my bishop, please let me know how and where I can best serve the church.
Grace and Peace,
Now, before anyone even mentions it, my invitation to go hiking with the bishop was not an attempt at "sucking up." If I was going to suck up to the bishop, I would be much more subtle than that, and besides he would see right through it, anyway. My invitation was sincere.
But as far as the rest of it, what do you think? Any questions? Some of the things I referred to were pretty specific to the Missouri Conference, but what are your responses in general? Am I in the ballpark? Am I even playing the same sport?