Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why Failure is to be Expected in Church
(and why it's not to be feared)

Many churches self-describe the desire to feel connected like family.  This yearning alternately confuses me on some days and cracks me up on others.  Conservative guesses at the Christian divorce rate put the number near 38%.  We won't even get into what Christmas was like at your extended family gathering this past year. (1)  Remarkably, many extremely faithful members of the Body of Christ worship Sunday after Sunday while members of their home stay, well, home.  Like family?  Really??

My confusion is not that the Church should want to be above the brokenness of family life (I don't think that all), only that by the time a church announces the desire to be like family, it feels like everyone involved has forgotten what this would mean. (2)

I experienced something of the same confusion when I listened to the address of the Presiding Bishop's Pre-General Convention address (3) this morning.  I have the utmost respect for our Presiding Bishop, but I was perplexed by her endorsement of a more entrepreneurial church. (4)  As with churches who want to be more family-like (and then complain when it is), I wonder about a church that wants to be more entrepreneurial: do any of us have the slightest idea of what this would mean?

For example (5):

- The US Small Business Administration reports that in 2002, more small businesses were closed than were open (among small businesses that hire employees).
- Among businesses with less than 20 paid employees, there there is a 67% chance that the business will not exist in 4 years; and 91% chance that the business will be gone in 10 years.
- Among restaurants, only 20% survive the first two years of operation.

It may still be true that the Church is called to a small business model (6), with accompanying canonical freedom, but it must be a true calling, because small business success is not a forgone conclusion, much less a way to stave off institutional death.  In fact, theologically one could make the case that if we are called as the Church to operate like small businesses, it is because we have a great need as Christians to become a community willing and able to fail (and to die).  After all, this is presumably where the forgiveness and love of the cross come in.

My final observation is that I find it deeply ironic that the two values most (I would argue) uncritically bandied about as the future of the living church in both traditional and progressive circles are family connectedness and mission-minded entrepreneurial-ism.  Put them together and what to you have?  That's right!  A family small business.  A literal mom and pop operation.

This new future feels a lot like the old one.
But if the crux is the cross (and it is, that's a rhetorical flourish), this future might be just the one God has made possible for us - and this future (failures and all) might well still surprise us.

(Thanks be to God!)


(1) I don't for a minute want to dismiss the pain of the holidays without family.  But precisely as evidenced by the regret many of us experience when we lose a family member, we often do not realize what we have until we lose it.  The situation is not unlike the old Woody Allen joke: "Waiter, the food here is terrible.  And such small portions!"

(2)  Mark Driscoll gives one of the best (and funniest) practical accounts that I've heard about what this might mean and/or look like and how it issues from the Gospel of Jesus.


(4) A common move, even (perhaps most frequently) among evangelicals, and often linked, as here, with a commitment to mission.

(5) Report here.

(6) I should be very clear that I am pro-mission always.  There are simply multiple ways to skin a cat and our selection of a particular method must be at least as theological as we think it will be practical.

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