Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Travel Lightly: Discipleship, Phase II

For those unfamiliar with trends in the Church who would usually assume them to be rather boring, I find some of the recent trends in mainline churches fascinating. In my own denomination, I’ve been impressed by the way “discipleship” language has effectively taken over the conversation as churches realize their antique views of membership were at best self-centered, and at worst conceited. It seems that some mainline churches have made real efforts to get out of the “head above water” mode and have struggled with how to be an evangelistic people. Phase I of this was simple: change the language so that people in the pews see themselves not as “members” as much as literal “disciples” of Christ, folks who “follow” him and abide by his teachings as the disciples did 2,000 years ago. Phase II is even more interesting, as the next step may be some sort of de-centralization so individual churches are more “headquarters” to distribution centers than the totality of that church’s ministry.

Is this the future of business as well? As my fiancĂ©e enjoys Mondays being her official work-from-home day, it seems that the Internet and the manual-labor-free nature of work in America have made centralization of the workplace less relevant. Is it possible that in the future, one building may house workers for dozens of different companies, serving as a convenient place to meet more than the nexus of the company, sort of like a mall houses many retailers? Will companies become more de-centralized as America’s economy revolves more around ideas, information and automation than physical labor? In other words, will the lunch pail and hardhat continue to be replaced by work-from-home days and de-centralized companies?

Perhaps we should give Southwest Airlines a lot of credit for proving the impossible in the airline industry. They said they would be more efficient by being a “hubless” airline, focusing on short, non-stop flights. It worked, and remarkably well at that. Most of the other major airlines were already too reliant on hubs (and too beholden to labor unions) to compete and have since declared bankruptcy. But Southwest found a new way to be lean and mean, to rid of the idea of centralization in travel. I wonder if this is the sort of de-centralization that will continue to define American business and even the Church?

Like I said, Phase II of the discipleship model seems to be not only for Christians to see themselves as disciples of Christ more than members of a church, but also to see the Church as more of a headquarters than the totality of the life of that church. Think of a bicycle wheel with the center being the church and the spokes being its ministry. It’s as close as we may get to entrepreneurship in the Church, where there still is a center, but there are more ministries than can think for themselves. Most churches continue to operate from the hub mentality with themselves at the focus of everything. They put so many financial eggs into that basket that there is little left for anything else. But can churches thrive within a city having one lean base of operations, but many other “distribution centers”? Will Christian churches in a post-Christian world come to be outposts along the way than the center of the city square?

And how did we get to where we are, anyway? It seems to me that the basic model Jesus gave us in the life of discipleship was fundamentally altered as the Church and culture became synonymous in the West. If I remember what one Oxford professor told me, a city wasn’t technically a “city” unless it had a cathedral, at least in England. This was the difference between “town” and “city”. Either way, cities and towns were both built around the church in many cases. It was the center of public life, often in the center of the town. (Architects and city planners, feel free to offer comments on historical accuracy.) Why bother to “go” or “send” if the church is in the middle of town and everyone knows it’s there? Even though this model was physically changed as cities changed and mentally/spiritually changed with post-modernism, many churches cling to this lazy sort of evangelism. I admit, it is awfully tempting.

The reality is that cities changed as populations grew, transportation improved, and mass communication became the norm. As cities changed, so did the role of the Church within them. Churches should no longer have assumed the same place of centrality. But it has taken several generations for the Church to accept that. For several decades, my own denomination has been in denial of this change, seemingly still looking to the shores for more boats of Norwegians, Germans or Swedes to come and fill the pews. Well, wouldn’t you know it, the boats stopped coming. And so we arrive at what always was: the command by Jesus to “Go.” And not only go, but travel lightly, because it’s hostile out there. Now that Phase II is upon us, how will the Church react, especially those who haven’t entered Phase I?

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