Someone like me who has committed to “reimagine church” makes two assumptions. First, we know the church has a problem. Second, the church is worth preserving anyway. Yes, it is flawed and no, we cannot discard it. Nothing is left, then, but to give this sacred institution our creativity, energy, and new vision.
The first assumption of this project tells us that the church needs to be reimagined, that our current creative action is necessary because the church of the moment is fading. Reimagining honestly assesses and says that the church needs change. To borrow from popular wisdom, the first step is acknowledging that we have a problem.
While this acknowledgement is painful for some church people, the second assumption is hopeful: the church is worth reimagining. Institutions crumble and are discarded all the time, but that is not what is happening here. We want to bring creativity and imagination to the church because it is special and worth preserving. There is still something valuable. We want to reimagine church instead of simply throwing it out.
What stops us from letting church go? What does a church offer that cannot be accomplished by another institution, especially in these highly secular times? Do we not already have charitable organizations and governmental agencies to work on behalf of disadvantaged people, social clubs for gathering, and psychologists to care for emotional distress?
These are the questions I asked Rev. Todd Vetter, one of the ministers of my working group’s parish: First Congregational Church of Madison, Connecticut. Rev. Vetter’s answer surprised me: “The church is unique because it orients itself around a particular story.” Not only a story, he says, but the Jesus story that draws humanity outside of itself. The church gathers around what many theologians call the “Other,” serving not simply as a group of humans where answers fold in on themselves but addressing something else, something beyond. Church people gather in close to turn out.
The gathering is where the story of God and humanity is told, discussed, cherished, and lived. People do not show up every Sunday only for each other, but for the story of Jesus, God and human, whose mysterious life and death (and life again) still provide hope. The church is where we, as finite humans facing the never-ending task of existential meaning-making, join to address our ultimate concern and meet deep spiritual longings.
What is goodness? What is love? How are we to live together while considering them, and what does Jesus have to do with it? For as long as these questions exist, the church will be needed. This need is not simply for quick answers or witty theology. The story of God is alive and embodied, lived out day by day and ever unfolding alongside the groups seeking to encounter it.
The church is flawed and yet we are stuck with it. We need the church and its story, and the church needs us. The church is that place in which we, our communities, our longings, and our questions grow and develop. It is where we tell the story of profound human existence and find our own place within it.
Because the church’s tasks of storytelling and meaning making have never been straightforward or easy, I suspect our own process of grappling with the church at this moment will be shrouded in its own slow, holy mystery. That is okay, and even wonderful. May we lean into the ambiguity and find moments of transformation because we love the church and its story too much to let it go.