The church of the future may not be we anticipated.
Published February 25, 2017
Two newsletters ago, I wrote about my impression of the Women’s March and a distributed Esperanto meeting, and how I thought these might provide models for Universalist Christians who do not have a church to begin to meet with one another.
I was describing occasional or special meetings, but this can also be can lead us to consider forming churches and so raises the question: what should a church today include, and what should it exclude? What is it that we do in church? Do these activities reflect who we are as a church? And should we even have churches?
The usual approach is to undertake a theological examination of the church and through the lens of church history, rather than looking at what churches actually do and how its members think of it. But I think we should look at the church in practical terms precisely because it is the most obviously and materially lived part of our faith. Unfortunately, this is where our tradition is less than helpful. So many churches have died that it’s hard to focus on what made Universalist churches Universalist, apart from a gentle, practical liberalism. Even when Universalist Christians were strong, there was less of a theory of church than a practice based on habit and fashion, itself dependent on popular notions of progress. (Those who cared about ecclesiology tended to start from scratch.)
But we cannot resuscitate the nineteenth and twentieth century. In time, these habits and practices slip into irrelevance and dysfunction, and they must be replaced; today so many of our churchly customs seem particularly old-fashioned because the culture around us has changed so dramatically in the last thirty years. Like a crowded closet, the best thing to examine the worn-out and ill-fitting parts of our church habits, but not necessarily throw them out. Some actions – like service projects and public works – perhaps can themselves be donated to other, more capable and comprehensive organizations, and then we can help them fulfill that mission. Other items in the closet can be fixed or repurposed, perhaps if only on a provisional basis, as we have seen with mixed results in our hymnody. And still others have such sentimental value that they can will be kept, even as we recognize that they’re not a vital part of our tradition. (John Murray’s work has had this role for generations.)
The organized future of Universalist Christianity thus may be very different than what experienced in prior generations. It may live distinct but embedded in other structures, as an idea that drifts from place to place or perhaps in an ad-hoc fashion to pop up when the spirit of the time demands its corrective.
Best, I think, to keep our options open and help those forces that give it life and set aside those that don’t.
Also: if you know someone who would like to join the Universalist Christian Initiative, please direct them to http://www.universalistchristian.org/join/. Thanks.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells