Readying for Radical Change

Stephen P. Bauman ’79 M.Div.

The church as we currently know it in the U.S. is going away. I would extend this notion to non-Christian religious institutions as well, based on numerous conversations with persons representing a wide variety of traditions.

All religious institutions are facing disruption in the cultural whirlwind because the forces in flux are ubiquitous. They press in on every arena of human social engagement.

When I state the church is going away, I do not mean the Jesus tradition will depart from our land. I mean the familiar structures fashioned from the threads of that tradition will no longer exist in their current form over the next several decades. Surely those in the trenches of local church experience can sense the tectonic shifts under their feet. The timing of the approaching shock waves will vary according to region and geography, but the resulting cultural tsunami will destabilize every variety of formal Christianity. We must clearly articulate and embrace this prospect so that strategies can be focused for greatest effect, and lay and clergy can be prepared for the inevitable challenges in a season of radical change.

Faster, Faster

Human behaviors are shifting in subtle but profound ways in the rush of technology to redefine how we organize time, how we work, how we date, how we construct friendships and execute communal commitments, how we parent, learn, and teach, not to mention how we shop. Social arrangements and technological habits are now evolving at faster rates, in shorter time cycles. Routinely people say, Well, five years ago we did it this way, but now

This pace of change is disorienting for those who have been shaped by ancient traditions that have prevailed for millennia. I am not complaining about this, simply stating the truth of it. I am no troglodyte when it comes to the newest technology and all its benefits and complexities. (In my house I’m often accused of just the opposite – an eager adoption of the latest breakthrough.)

The change looks primarily structural, tactical, and material. The foundations of our humanity, on the other hand, remain intact: Each individual still must contend with what it means to be born and to die. All of us attempt to make sense of the days of our lives, confronting questions of purpose and identity. Those questions are not going away any time soon.

Resilient Witness

For this reason I am bullish on Christianity over the long haul. I am less bullish in the shorter run. The “organized church” is in for a wild ride because much of its business falls within the realms of the structural, tactical, and material – precisely the arenas experiencing the greatest changes. In this sense, what is at risk is not faith as such but the institutional structures that arose over the centuries for the purpose of teaching and advancing faith.

Jesus’ enduring power and presence will not end if a denomination or two or three go under water. If we look to his own time, the very center of Jewish faith and Jesus’ own faith – the temple of Jerusalem – was overwhelmed and torn down shortly after he died, with the remnants on view today 2,000 years later. But his legacy took root nevertheless in peoples’ lives, continuing to the present moment.

Given our circumstances, I have adopted a humble posture about “best practices” in my pastoral leadership role in a local congregation. There is no technique, method, or model that will fit most situations or last longer than a heartbeat. There is only the action of Christian agents and congregations deepening their love of God and neighbor in fresh ways – a commitment informed by the tradition and in conversation with sisters and brothers who share The Way that Jesus blazed.

A Purifying Effect

As the clichéd deck chairs of denominational structures continue their perpetual rearranging, the hard but rewarding work of advancing the cause of the gospel in real-time locations remains the patient focus. There is no clear road map, no clear set of prescriptions for all serious Christians in every scenario. But this has a purifying effect. Less important matters fall away as more essential matters rise to the surface.

I serve an 85-year-old church that derived from older congregations in an evolving city landscape. A magnificent structure of marble and glittering mosaics was built on a site in Manhattan we arrogantly assert as “the heart of the city, in the heart of the world.” It was meant to make a permanent statement in a very different era, when the city’s most prominent newspapers devoted a front-page column each Monday morning to the previous day’s sermon of one of the big-steeple preachers – a time of mainline Protestant cultural hegemony.

For the first five of my now 28 years of service, I was routinely contacted by real estate developers who asked the same question: Did I realize Christ Church sat on one of the five most valuable undeveloped sites in Manhattan? Eventually that circumstance led to the sale of our air rights, netting us millions of dollars in what is now known as “Billionaires’ Row,” the newly abounding high-rise condominiums that bisect the city along the 57th Street corridor.

By the time I arrived in 1987, though, the congregation had fallen into near collapse, with just 40 or so persons in attendance. Our glittering jewel box of a church was locked up all week except for three hours on Sunday mornings. In these last decades we have experienced a vital rebirth with a youthful, diverse membership through a dedication to Christian hospitality and a resilient commitment to excellence, as Paul wrote of it to his friends in Philippi (see Philippians 4:8). And we embraced a simple mission that every member knows by heart: We seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.

Less Hierarchy, More Partnering

Still, the proverbial writing is on the sparkling walls: This local cohort of Christians will not exist two or three decades from now unless it meaningfully recommits itself to the city – and loves the city and its inhabitants more than itself. It cannot exist as a shrine to past glories, or even in celebration of modest present-day successes. Who will relate to such an organization when the whole world lies digitally at everyone’s fingertips and every social-media moment stands available for spontaneous response? The change around us is too rapid to settle into theological and organizational routines. I feel this deeply. And I am bestirred.

Congregational ministry has never been more challenging, or compelling. Risk-averse candidates need not apply. Better to state this up front before more caretakers seek the ordained path. As for Christ Church, we are fashioning a new ministry under the rubric of “breaking the back of poverty in a zip code,” partnering with the community of Washington Heights just north of Harlem. Our immediate goal there is to resolve the future of a large, deteriorating property that will allow a new work to proceed, beginning with an initiative to address the material and spiritual needs of mothers with children up to three years of age.

As others have noted, the burden of the contemporary religious project shifts the focus from orthodoxy to orthopraxy – embodied faith modeled on Jesus. Less hierarchy, more partnering; less clergy focus, more people focus; less institution building, more hands and feet engaged in embodied love. In the meantime our values remain. Worship is the core of our life. We practice dynamic hospitality. We welcome and affirm diversity. We strive for excellence in all we do. How these intersect with the culture’s emergent energies remains uncertain. Perhaps our practices will need modification. Then again, constant modification – personal and corporate – seems the one necessity for walking in solidarity with Jesus and living an authentic Christian life.

The Rev. Stephen P. Bauman ’79 M.Div. is senior minister of Christ Church United Methodist in New York City. He earned a Ph.D. in leadership and change at Antioch University, and is a member of the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council.