I spend enough time here whining about what I am not going to be — an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — but I’ve never really set forth a vision of what I’d like my ministry to look like.
So, here I go.
I have two visions. They may not necessarily be mutually exclusive.
The first involves starting a church — a worshiping community — in a storefront somewhere. The ELCA did at least form me as a liturgical Christian, and I cannot really worship without something reasonably resembling the historic liturgy of the church. Liturgy keeps us grounded and connected: to the historic church year (which provides discipline for pastors, so they don’t always preach on pet subjects); and to the church catholic in time and space, so that we are doing something that Christians have always done in a way at least similar to how have always done it. Liturgy also focuses worship on the central act of God’s gift of grace for us — the supper — by linking us to every Christian in every time and place who has celebrated the Lord’s Supper, including Jesus and his disciples in that upper room.
So, any small worshiping community I would found or help start would be liturgical. It would at least be ELCA Lutheran, if only because that is what I am familiar with and have presided over.
And worship would not simply be a Sunday matter. For a while in Chicago, I attended daily morning mass at a local Catholic parish. I think daily worship — whether it is mass and/or the praying of the hours — is essential. Muslims understand something Christians in modernity have forgotten — that following a rigorous God means setting the secular aside, and stopping secular time, and acknowledging the gift and presence of God in our midst, and God’s call on our lives, is essential. I’ve never been terribly good at this, either as a Muslim or a Christian, but I would like to be. I have always liked the idea of ordering my life to the rhythms of prayers and worship.
This community would primarily be a worshiping community. We would take study seriously — the bible, the church fathers, and the historic teaching of the church. (We did not get anywhere near enough of the historic teaching of the church at seminary.) Any kind of “social service” or “outreach” would come a distant second. If for no other reason than, as one of the early church fathers said, if we do not get worship right, nothing else we do matters. I’ve lived in cities where the streets are walkable and storefronts easy to get to. I’m not closed off to doing outreach or even “social work,” but I think that sort of thing ought to flow out of the needs, desires, and gifts of the community — who are we and what are we called to do in this place? — rather than be imposed upon that community from above.
How a worshiping community looks out, and reaches out, should entirely result from how that community worships, what it understands and experiences in that worship, and what it encounters and understands as it studies scripture, theology, and the teaching of the church.
I think of this in terms of storefront simply because I don’t believe the church should be in the real estate business. Buildings are costly to maintain, and while I appreciate why a congregation might want to have such a place, I do think it is in many ways a distraction from the actual work God has called us to do. Or at least some of us.
There’s another idea I’ve had for the last few years — long before the ELCA tossed me out of the ordination process, even. And that would be some kind of semi-monastic worshiping community. This would include everything above, but also put it in the context of a community not just coming together for worship, study, and service, but also to live. I say semi-monastic, because I would like this to be open to people of all ages, to married couples and those with children. (Not something monasticism catered to.)
Again, the focus would be on worship and study, and possibly some kind of shared enterprise — baking bread? brewing beer? hosting retreats? — to help pay for it all. (Again, this will emerge from the skills and talents of those brought into the community.) It needs to be some kind of manual or skilled labor — part of what modernity does is alienate us from things, making them incomprehensible. Human beings need to live in a world of things they can fashion, can make, can manipulate, can repair, and any intentional religious community would need to do the kind of labor that imparts skills and competence, and makes the world a coherent and meaningful place (from the standpoint of being something people can master). This kind of knowledge, whether it is baking bread, fixing cars, growing vegetables, or building bicycles, is essential because it is human knowledge. It helps us make sense of the world and ourselves, and at the same time, links us to things much bigger than ourselves. (Try building a bicycle wheel sometime.) I think this kind of arrangement, when combined with some serious study (Bible, Church Fathers, theology) would be one way to help train future pastors/monks/whatever.
The idea would be to live a shared Christian life, and to submit to a greater authority than ourselves (one weakness I now have, no longer really being part of a greater church tradition), to witness to the love of one who breathed and called us into being. That there is another way to live that involves love and self-surrender, rather than self-assertion, rather than using and being used. (I was thinking of something akin to the Benedict Option long before it had that name, in part because I relished intense and intentional religious life as a member of a religious minority.)
If I weren’t married, I’d give away most of my worldly possessions (sorry, Jesus, but I least need my guitar and my ukulele) and join some kind of religious order. But I’m married, and so … that’s not really an option.
I don’t expect this to be an attractive idea for anyone, and certainly not the world. Not as it is constructed right now. I have no idea how I’d start any of this, especially in my current circumstances. But who knows… the church in the past has done a lot more with a lot less.