Note: This column will be a little reference-heavy. All the important information will be right here, but if you read it on our website you might appreciate following a couple of external links. I’m about to share thoughts from a conference I didn’t attend, a writer whose words I’ve never seen in print, and an actual hold-it-in-your-hands book (yes, those still exist here in The Future). Because of the structure of my thoughts, I have to put the very best reference at the end – so stick with me through the first two external references.

On the Presbytery Council, we’re discussing and discerning the changing role of the church’s regional body. One of our resources in this process has been Reggie McNeal’s book, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. Like many commentators, McNeal looks at cultural shifts, new communication technologies, and changing attitudes toward institutional religion, and sees the possibility of a new Reformation. For individual Christians, the call is what it has always been: to grow deeper in love for God and broader in love for neighbor. For churches, however, the challenge is to live into a new role in this new world. While people may not automatically turn to the church for their religious identity or for opportunities to serve, we still need the church community to help us connect to resources and support each other’s growth.

But that’s not new, you say? Well, it’s not. Our Presbyterian tradition has always valued education and service in the mission of the gathered church. We’ve made individual discretion and mutual accountability into bedrock principles of our identity. The difference is that individuals now have immediate access to a range of ideas and resources that the Presbyterian Reformers couldn’t have imagined, and by no means are all of them “Presbyterian.” It’s easy to “blame” the Internet for this wide variety of views, but radio and television created celebrity preachers (Billy Graham, and Aimee Semple McPherson before him) long before computers learned to talk to each other. That’s why McNeal talks about a present future: we already live in this new world.

At Luther Seminary’s Book of Faith Jubilee (the conference I watched online instead of attending), John Roberto put a good name on the local church’s new way of connecting people to resources. Instead of the local church providing resources that people wouldn’t otherwise have access to, he described us as a “curator” of resources that already exist. Why produce flashy videos, write clever skits, or develop homemade curriculum, when those resources are all readily available on the Web, or almost as readily available in catalogs? Instead, we can focus our energy on selecting and customizing resources for our particular setting and the particular needs our people bring to the table. We should be just as invested in teaching, forming, and sharing, but we don’t have to spend all our time creating presentations that other people have already made.

There’s too much out there for any of us to find it all, so just calling each other’s attention to the really great stuff is its own ministry. The real gift of the local church is that we know each other well enough to share the best resources for our particular people. Really, I should generalize that statement: The real gift of the local church is that we know each other, well and deeply. Never as well or as deeply as might be ideal, but always better than, say, Reggie McNeal or John Roberto knows us. The local church exists to be the church at a scale where we can recognize each other, learn the hard way to trust and forgive, and find our faith deepened by sharing our lives with each other.

Rachel Held Evans (the writer I’ve never read in print, and “best reference” I mentioned earlier) wrote about wanting “a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants, and…brace yourself…painfully amateur ‘special music’ now and then.” She’s writing against the current trend toward “super-hip” churches where young, tech-savvy urbanites go to drink specialty coffee and watch slick production numbers that mimic the “awesome presence of God.” While she acknowledges that high production values don’t necessarily get in the way of real religious life, she rightly points out that it easily can. We can invest so much attention in getting things just right that we miss the God who comes among us in the form of human frailty and good-enough attempts to live out forgiveness and generosity. Evans celebrates especially the messy and distracting things about life together that truly open us to a deeper sense of Christ’s way.

This is an invitation for all of us to share the resources, experiences, and practices that help us identify and participate in God’s activity in the world around us. As I said, there’s nothing new about this idea, but it’s worth making the invitation again. It’s always amazing to see what comes of it.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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