Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Carl Scovel's "A Church of Christian Simplicity"

This essay by Carl appeared in the summer 2002 issue of the newsletter of the Magi Network. It and some conversations I had with Carl around this time, of our first launching of the church plant here in its original incarnation, were like seeds planted in my emerging sense of the church. I didn't take it to heart and let it guide me right away, and had to unlearn my way into it, part of being a new minister too, but I kept returning to this essay again and again. I have used parts of it often.

The Magi Network was once an independent affiliate organization related to the UUA with a mission to grow new UU Christian churches. It came out of the experience, and the people, of Epiphany UU in Fenton, MI started in the mid 90s. The Magi Network first, and later Epiphany itself, folded. I hope through this post, as much as anything else, they still can sow their seeds. I have been thinking lately of working this summer on a new incarnation of something akin to the Magi Network but with a missional focus. Drop me a line or add a comment if you want to be a part of a growing list for this.

Carl Scovel is minister emeritus of Kings Chapel, and received the Distinguished Service Award from the UUA. His annual retreats at Glastonbury Abbey continue to feed my soul. Here is the essay:

"Since I've retired I've been looking at churches and I'm struck by how much time and energy the members spend in order to staff committees, raise money, send out mailings, keep up morale, heat, light and maintain the building--in short, to support an institution.

Often, it seems to me that church folk are so busy at the work of keeping the ship afloat that they don't have time for prayer, learning and pleasure, which they need in order to know God and grow as a religious people.

They are already working longer and harder at their jobs than did their parents. Sometimes they are caring for those parents or for their children. They have obligations as citizens. They are under stress. And the church itself makes demands and presses its concerns.

As one who now sits in a pew I often hear behind the appeal for funds, volunteers and new members, an anxiety about whether or not their church will survive. This anxiety about institutional survival does not attract people and it is not inspiring.

When I hear ministers and layfolk discuss this situation, they acknowledge it sadly but with a sense that it can't be changed. I can't believe this is true.

I can't believe it because I can't believe that a busyness which brings fatigue, resentment, and anxiety is God's will for the church. I can't believe that God intends these feelings or this structure for his (or her) people.

I believe that God wants first to refresh us and then use us.

But the initial change won't come with an Alban Institute program (good as they are) or with reading any of Lyle Schaller's or Loren Mead's excellent books.

The initial change comes in our response to God's intention.

First one must pray. Someone, maybe only one person, needs to pray, and in time another will, and another. In time half the congregation could be praying.

Praying means opening one's self to the intention of God, God's will that we take pleasure in the divine presence and enjoy that presence and in the light of that pleasure learn the specific plans and directions which will help our church become a less institutional and a more faithful community.

It is not dogma or inadequate fund drives or cultural secularism (or even pedophiles) that kills churches. It is exhaustion and overwork and preoccupation with inessentials, which have become the ad hoc essentials because the real essentials have been forgotten.

I speak not from the outside of this situation, but as one who has been immersed in it for all of my full-time ministry, and as one among the many others who have felt in their minds, hearts and bodies the consequences of this overwork and anxiety.

Most people (or am I wrong?) are looking for refreshment and maturation, not busyness. They are glad to give, but they fear burn-out and overcommittment. Thus it seems to me--and of course I could be dead wrong--that the first thing a congregation must know is the answer to "What is essential?" What nourishes, sustains, informs, inspires and directs a congregation? And how will this be real among us?

Before we hire a choir director, organize a church school, write bylaws, send out fliers, make up a list of committees--in short, plunge into the model of mainline Protestant and UU churches--we need to feed our hearts, minds and souls.

What is the good news? And how will this be good news among us--this congregation--in a way that will rejuvenate and not deplete us?

Perhaps this means a minimal church, a church of Christian simplicity, rather than an unsuccessful mini-version of the 400 member sister in the next town.

As Christians, we are asking how the presence of Christ will be real among us.

Perhaps we will study the Bible instead of hearing a sermon. Perhaps we will learn to sing well together, rather than isolating some singers in a choir. Perhaps we will learn to worship with our children, instead of apart from them. Perhaps we will share the prayers and readings among the congregation. Perhaps we will learn to fly by the seat of our pants rather than the top of our brain.

Even as I write this, I wonder if I am creating one more impossible ideal. Perhaps my readers will shake their heads and sadly say, "Wouldn't it be nice is this could work? But it won't. You can't get a church going this way."

Perhaps my readers are right. I'm not sure I have a plan for recreating a church.

But I do know that the presence of Christ in a person or a congregation brings power and surprising direction. And I believe that too many churches have become workhouses, often filled with exhaustion and anxiety about their survival. And I cannot believe that this must be so.

A church of Christian simplicity. Is it possible today?"


Rev. Dee Graham said...

This essay serves as a gentle reminder for me also. It has timeless qualities. What's the new idea, Ron? Inquiring minds want to know. Do you have a brainstorming time set for GA?

Ron said...

The part of the essay that convicts me continually is about thinking understanding all about church dynamics with the help of books is going to translate into a healthier church :), at least if it cuts into prayer time which will be more valuable...There are a number of us from coast to coast in beginning stages of a conversation about a conversation and support network for starting more missional groups, house churches, etc. and maybe meeting through skype, etc....I will probably use my GA workshop, see below, to unveil it.