This was the question posed by a recent survey put out by national leadership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. The intention is to engage a broad audience of Presbyterians and otherwise in conversations about denominational identity, structure, and mission. For this, I and many others are deeply grateful.
I have wrestled with this question (and others in the survey) a lot over the past few days. It’s a good question. It’s a faithful question. It’s a pertinent question in an age of decline and perceived irrelevance for many mainline denominations. Nevertheless, it’s a difficult question. We know what kind of church we don’t want to be. We know what kind of church does not "work” in the twenty-first century. Yet, when the question is framed with possibility over cynicism, opportunity over angst, responses are not as easily nuanced.
Maybe that’s because we are more comfortable swimming in the confined waters of criticism versus the open waters of creativity and hope. We are possibly more familiar with dead-end despair and rhetoric about death, dying, and bleak futures at best than anything that suggests God is not quite done with us yet.
This summer, the lectionary journeyed through 1 Samuel. There I found unexpected institutional and ecclesial solidarity in the aged prophet who lamented the end of King Saul’s reign. The supposed glory days of the first national leader of Israel were over and uncertainty about what and who and where and when Samuel would anoint a new king weighed heavy on the prophet. Amidst the grief and angst, God spoke:
“How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out…” (1 Sam 16:1)
Variations of these words have echoed throughout history, as God’s people have navigated cultural, political, and ecclesial evolutions for the sake of God’s mission in and for the world. And with each passing era, the God who is unafraid of change asks a similar question:
How long, Church, will you grieve the end of what once was? Fill your horn with oil and set out...
But where to? That’s the million dollar question.
So back to 1 Samuel.
The invitation of God was for Samuel to move beyond lament and venture to Bethlehem and the house of Jesse. There, reminiscent of a playground draft, seven of Jesse’s boys are lined up eager to be selected and named God’s anointed one.
Frankly, most of us would have assumed an adequate selection from the initial candidates. We would have likely noticed their leadership skills, entrepreneurial edge, and charisma perfect for navigating the emerging future for God’s people. Some of them may have looked and sounded a lot like Saul in his hay day. Ah, familiarity. So, like Samuel, we would have been ready and willing to sprinkle some of that oil on any of their privileged heads.
But God had other visions and dreams. God was not looking to duplicate the past but launch a new present and alternative future. God dared Samuel not merely to look for a new king but really to notice a new kind of anointing about to unfold. So God speaks, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, his resume and successful church growth strategies, his productive stewardship campaigns and fluency in polity and governmental structures. Do not prioritize his charm, flashy references, and advanced degrees because I have rejected those priorities; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." (1 Sam 16:7; a bit of a paraphrase...)
So after Jesse names each of his sons, none who have been called, Samuel asks if there are any others.
Rather than naming the only remaining possibility, Jesse points to the fields and in the direction of his youngest. There, among the sheep and on the fringe of his own family, was God’s anointed one. God’s future rested in one frequently unnoticed and unworthy of being mentioned by name.
So, what does the ideal church look like? Probably better asked, where will we find God's anointing presence?
If we consider stories like this, the “ideal" church of the present-future exists in the fields and among the unnoticed shepherds on the fringes of society. God calls us to discover the Spirit's anointing beyond the seven sons representative of faded and privileged pasts and in those whose voices have for far-too-long been dismissed as irrelevant and unworthy of consideration.
We must listen to those who neither give two rips about or did not grow up with old systems, institutional language, and polity once prized as hallmark of our tradition.
We must be willing to change our rhetoric and adapt the way we conduct business in the church so those who do not have ancestry in all things Presbyterian can understand.
We must explore intentional means to engage younger generations whose time, schedules, families, and careers look different than those of generations past, posing new hurdles for serving in leadership capacities.
We are called to look to the church in developing nations not merely as deposits for our charitable contributions, but as critical conversation partners and primary educators on pertinent matters of the church as an organized and sent community. After all, the face of Christianity is no longer (if it ever was) American.
We are nudged to listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers of diverse ethnic and cultural heritages, woven into creative expressions of faith, worship, and neighborhood ministries. Even more, we must leverage related leaders to positions of influence, innovation, and executive significance.
We must elevate the voices of children and youth. If they cannot participate in and share the mission and identity of the church, does anything we really do matter at all?
We must look to the small churches in our networks, mid-councils, and synods, aware many have been innovative since their inception. Creativity and missional engagement have been critical to their theological identity and organizational survival even before it was trendy.
We must be willing to gather in spaces beyond church campuses so those who would never set foot within a sanctuary or education wing of our buildings can be a part of our community and formative conversations about faith and public theology.
We must ask a whole lot of questions and include our neighbors in these inquiries.
We must be willing to try and fail and try again. One thing we cannot do- remain in our grief about what once was. We cannot afford attempts to reboot an old system. That’s not ideal.
So back to the question: What does your ideal church look like?
I’m not completely sure, but I’m asking around. It probably doesn’t look the same for anybody anymore. Nevertheless, I am finding great joy and hope in new conversation partners who call the fields and fringe their home. For this is where God's Spirit is awakening a hopeful, sustainable, faithful, redemptive, localized, and anointed future for the Church and its witness in the world.
Maybe that’s how I should have responded to the question on the survey...