Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Doing Church and Being Church: A Reflection on our First Semester

Natalie Benson

Churches in our nation face the triple epidemics of the COVID crisis, racial and systemic injustice, and the climate crisis. This is a truly challenging time to “do church,” let alone to “reimagine church.” As I reach the half-way mark of my journey with my working group as they work to reimagine church, I’d like to share my reflections thus far.

Very early in our time together, my working group wasted no time in naming the many reasons why reimagining church is an urgent and necessary task. They said - membership numbers are dwindling, especially among young people. Families, congregations, and denominations are divided by political and theological debates that feel like uncrossable chasms. Christianity is so often used to promote hate and exclusion. I quickly learned that my working group is honest about the situation of the church, yet bold enough to dream of a better way.

I also learned that my working group is full of self-proclaimed “achievers.” Sure enough, within just a few weeks we had spreadsheets, flow-charts, email threads, flow-charts about our spreadsheets, and Google docs about our email threads - you get the idea. Not only is my working group serious about doing the work of re-imagining church, they’re serious about doing it right.

They want to do it right, because they’re not naïve to what they’re up against. They know churches don’t always “do it right.” Each of them has personal experiences of being, or watching their loved ones be, hurt or excluded by what they call “that church -”
“That church” is exclusive or cliquey.
“That church” uses scripture to cause harm.
“That church” fails to be relevant to people’s current needs.
“That church” is too uptight or removed from the realities of the world to care for their

Underlying all of my working group’s spreadsheets, flow-charts, and email threads I sense a deep fear that if we don’t “do it right,” SUM will become “that church.” As I watch this fear bubble up in my working group, I recognize this fear in myself. So often, I catch myself scrambling to “do it right” as I pursue a career in ministry. I want to be a good pastor someday. So, I try to read the right books, take the right classes, and have the right job experiences in the hopes that all of my “doing” will lead me to be the “right” kind of pastor.

As we fumble along the weaving and uncertain path of reimagining church, is it possible to “do it right?” What would Jesus say if we asked - “Jesus, are we reimagining church right?” What would he say to all of our spreadsheets and flow charts? They may not be perfect, but wouldn’t he understand that in all of our “doing,” we’re just trying to be a better church?

These questions remind me of a story about someone else who did a lot of “doing” in the hopes of getting the Christian life “right.” The story goes like this:

A man was on the road in a massive lightning storm. He was scared for his life. He prayed that if God would spare his life, he’d do all he could to live a sinless life. Miraculously, the man was saved, and he kept his promise to God. He became a Monk, but not just any monk. He became the most pious monk he could possibly be. He became very good, maybe even too good, at “doing” all of the most faithful things. He went way beyond the monastery’s expectations for fasting, repeated his prayers longer than anyone else, and worked on chores so severely that he did permanent damage to his body. Eventually, all of his “doing” for God got so extreme that the other monks asked him to leave the monastery.

The poor man was lost. Why had God saved him in the first place if he couldn’t figure out how to “do” a faithful life right? But God did not abandon this man. In his study of scriptures one day, the man was struck by this verse from Romans:

“Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s
grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

You may have guessed by now - that the man in this story is Martin Luther, the namesake of my Lutheran faith. This verse from Romans became a pinnacle of Lutheranism. In this verse, God calls Christians to more than “doing it right.” This verse told Luther, and tells us today, that God sent Jesus Christ to dwell among us, not to judge us for what we DO, but to give us the freedom of knowing who we ARE - beloved children of God. No amount of “doing” can separate us from the freedom of being loved by God.

Luther had spent so much of his life chasing this freedom. He was so busy trying to DO freedom, that he didn’t realize that he was simply called to BE free. This story reminds me that it is a tale as old as time to get so preoccupied with what we are doing that we lose track of who we are. After Luther’s realization that no amount of “doing” could separate him from the love of God - Luther wanted to live this freedom out! But when he turned to the medieval church that existed at the time, he had similar struggles to the struggles that many of us face today as we try to “reimagine church” today.

Luther wanted to live freely as a beloved child of God, but the Church told people that there was much they had to do in order to be free, beloved, and whole. Just like the Christians in power today, the Christians in power during Luther’s time were both sinners and saints. They took advantage of the natural human instinct to be preoccupied with what we are “doing” and established church systems that benefitted them at the expense of the poor.

In the Protestant Reformation, which could also be called the “medieval-version of reimagining church,” Luther and other reformers clung to their faith that in Christ, all are free to live as beloved children of God. They worked to reimagine a church that was less focused on DOING and more focused on BEING - being free, being beloved, being church.

This message seems so simple, but when I return to my working group’s Google folders, spreadsheets, and flowcharts after this break, it feels counter-intuitive. In order to reimagine church, there’s work to be done! How is the church going to change without our “doing?” In a roundabout way, maybe Christ does call us to “doing,” but just a different type of “doing” than we are used to.

My Lutheran faith taught me that Christians are not free FROM “doing,” but free FOR “doing.” In a world that constantly tells us that our worth is in our “doing,” Jesus tells us that there is no amount of “doing” that could make us any more beloved. But at the same time, because we are so beloved, we are free to “doing” that reflects that all are beloved children of God.

Luther’s story reminds me that as a church of sinners and saints, God is always calling us to reimagine church. God calls people like us - stumbling, imperfect people, who sometimes get sidetracked by how well we are doing and we forget who we are. God doesn’t call us to wait until we can do reimagining church “right” to start living like we are a church reimagined.

As my working group begins a new semester, I am excited to keep stumbling towards the ever-moving target of being a church reimagined. I pray that our “doing,” whether it be increasing church membership, listening deeply to our neighbors, or changing the design of our website, may reflect who we are as a community of beloved children of God.

I pray that we may boldly imagine what might it look like to live as if we already ARE beloved, like we already ARE free to do good, like we already ARE a church reimagined.