My dark church fantasyAugust 21, 2012
I sometimes like to think about what would happen if suddenly it was discovered that all church buildings in Australia had been lined with an exclusively supplied and especially toxic form of ecclesial asbestos. Instantly all church buildings are closed, and the government department responsible slaps a blanket ‘closed for 3 years’ prohibition on the buildings, to give a broad enough window for all of the ecclesial asbestos to be removed safely, the sites cleaned up and appropriate renovations and repairs made.
Every church is in this same situation – and it is for a defined period of time – three years.
Imagine the beauty of this! Suddenly, every church in Australia is homeless! Turned out into the street and forced to ask a series of essential questions that many haven’t asked in a couple of centuries – or longer.
Do we need a building?
How might the experience of being roofless help us identify with the homeless, the refugee, the assylum seeker, those who don’t own their own property, the indigenous people who have been repeatedly dislodged in the many processes of European occupation of Australia?
How might the state of being without bricks and mortar enable us better to be ‘on the road with Jesus’ disciples? Might we better understand the commission of Luke 10? Jesus sends out his disciples to be dependent on other people’s hospitality, to stay in stranger’s homes, to work with the resources they find in a place, not to come with a bag of bits and a box of tricks.
Would being a homeless people serve us well in reconnecting us with the stories of the people of God, the wandering adventure-bent clan of Abraham &Sons, the runaway slave of the exodus, the vagabond king in waiting, David and his foraging bandits, the exiles and the ruined remnant left behind in the broken and beaten land.
And might we understand better how to be disciples and proclaimers of the itinerant, or perhaps less politely put, vagrant Jesus.
Being without our walls may help us really consider the great reconciliation of God is Christ, the one who has ‘broken down every dividing wall’ (Ephesians 2)
There is plenty of talk about ‘post Christendom’ around. Many of us resonate with the vitality of a faith that is not constrained by the forces of centralisation, conformity and standardisation – values which seem to us to have more to do with Coca-cola than Jesus or his early interpreters, Mary, Peter, Philip, Stephen, Paul. I wonder what kind of new diversities could emerge in my asbestos-induced diaspora?
I wonder what kinds of ethics we would hear in the discussions as church communities worked through deciding what to do.
Who would be invited into those conversation? congregations? children? the local community? Would we think to invite them?
What kinds of questions would pre-occupy our discussion? – How will we worship on a Sunday? or how will we serve our community during the week? How will adults be accommodated to listen to sermons, or how will children be connected safely with the whole discipleship community? How will musical worship find expression? How will we identify ourselves in the local public landscape? Will cars or bikes or walking or money or food or sound systems or soup figure in our deliberations?
I like to wonder about these things. I like to get out the letters of Paul, who wrote to faith-ers who didn’t have asbestos, but who also didn’t have designated buildings. I try to imagine how his words might run….
What would be our first order of business? What kind of self-examination might we need to submit honestly to?
Do we think about a ‘stop gap’ solution for three years – or do we dare imagine a permanent re-orientation?
What kind of resources might be released from within the community through an honest expression of need.
Maybe new partnerships might be formed…
There are some wonderful stories around of congregations that have closed and sold their building – and then discovered a new-shaped life and witness through the partnerships that became necessary in their dependence. Interestingly, all of the instances of this that I have ever heard were the result of a congregation dwindling to a point of not being able to sustain their building. I have never heard of a church deliberately choosing this from a place of ‘this is the best idea we can think of to be the gospel’ when they didn’t have to for economic reasons. So it might just be, that to do this is just a bad idea. But then again, I have heard of churches who have temporarily shut down their building for considerable renovations, and in the interim, meeting in a community hall or school, have discovered a whole new dimension of connection and presence with the pulse of their local area.
You can see, though, how easily our discussion can slide away from the vocabulary of identifying with the margins, back towards the sense of advantage.
This is the hard discipline in speaking and thinking in the reformation and transformation theology of Jesus. To both desire the reign of God in which we give no allegiance to other protestations of power, and while aligning ourselves with this reign of God to yet relinquish all claims to power ourselves.
So evil as my church-shutting asbestos fantasy might seem, it is in fact an attempt at exercising my mind and emotions and and imagination in the discipline of following the self emptying saviour, who shut down his position and privilege and turned himself out onto the streets of the cosmos.
Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t wish all church building closed. This is a fantasy. Fantasy helps us think creatively about reality, not to usurp or destroy reality, but to see all of reality more clearly. So this exercise is not to be an indulgence in annihilating the potential of church buildings, but an expansion of our vision for transformation.
This dark fantasy should reveal not only a fresh approach to how we view property but also how view people, and our own personhood. In the end, the transformation that we most seek is the re-shaping of how we as people are the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ – in our relationships, our own life decisions. We need to be prepared to de-asbestos our lives and communities more than our buildings.