Holy @#$%! Time for a new reformation?

Walter Russell Mead says the first Reformation can be understood as clearing things away to make room for the Gospel. He also says it’s time for another reformation. This time, instead of relics, we have other sacred things to toss. Mead’s argument is brash, but his point is spot on.

Martin Luther understood something very important about the Castle Church: the holy crap had to go. There might have been a time when a vial of the Virgin’s milk would connect the peasants with the story of the first Christmas and remind them both of the dignity of women and the awesome presence of God on earth. The brutal knights of an earlier day might be terrified into honoring their oaths if sworn on one of the 35 pieces of the True Cross lying in various reliquaries and altarpieces at the Castle Church. But that time was no more; if Castle Church was to play its part in the great changes on foot in the world, old ideas would have to go, and once-treasured relics be accepted as frauds and cast aside.

That’s a pretty good description of where the American church is today: there’s a lot of holy crap on the premises, and it is long past time for a good housecleaning. The American church is staggering under the burden of a physical plant that it doesn’t use and can’t pay for; it staggers under the burden of dysfunctional and bloated denominational and professional structures that it can no longer carry; and it is crippled by outdated ideas about what it needs to do its job. All these buildings, bureaucracies and assumptions may have been holy once, may have played a real part in advancing God’s work, but for a lot of them that time has passed.

I’ve been serving my current parish for almost three years. We’re about to have our third Dumpster Party during my tenure. When we do this, we get together on a Saturday morning and throw stuff away. We’ll have no trouble filling a third massive trash bin this coming Saturday. All that junk was filling up space that we couldn’t use for ministries. Two things are clear. First, we won’t miss any of the tons of stuff we’ve tossed. Second, we’re just getting started.

We occupy massive buildings that were built for a different age, for different needs, and for a different congregation. While we use nearly every room on Sunday mornings, it’s not clear that our physical plant makes sense for us. It’s also not clear what that means for us — or for countless other churches.

Mead writes about denominational and diocesan overhead, and he’s spot on. I would be hard pressed to say exactly how our 17% contribution to the diocese advances local ministry and the mission of the church. I hasten to add that I can recognize some benefits, but perhaps our ratio of administrative staff to mission work has gotten out of whack.

Last Saturday I heard Reggie McNeal speak. He said that last year, Christians across the US took in $102 BILLION in revenue. McNeal wondered if we church leaders might hear a question like this at judgement day: “You took in HOW MUCH and there were STILL HUNGRY PEOPLE in the land?!” It’s a good question.

I’m the biggest expense in my parish budget. You can look it up on our website. By the time you stack in all the benefits, the total goes above $100,000. Let me be the first to say that in the ideal church, everything I do would be done by volunteers. We’d hear preachers with training, but perhaps not in a seminary. Gifted people would offer pastoral care. People would be raised up and formed to offer sacramental ministry. My task, really, is to obsolete myself — in the ideal world.

And here’s the dilemma that Mead sidesteps. In busy world full of busy people, a “professional” to do much of the ministry and leadership work fits in better. Despite the known risks of people outsourcing their discipleship to another, we’ve settled on this imperfect scheme. Maybe that’s what has happened on a wider scale, at dioceses and denominational offices. At the very least, we need to face the spiritual risks of our present way of doing things.

We also need to start asking about the stewardship of resources. Must every congregation have its own dedicated building that is used fully only for two hours on Sunday morning? Must every congregation be led by a seminary-trained priest? Must every diocese have a program staff? Must every denomination have a large staff (whose connection to local ministry is unclear)?

We should not dismiss Mead’s writing out of hand, but neither should we run to fire everyone at 815 or at our diocese. We should be relentless in looking at how our financial resources are used. We should constantly ask ourselves if there’s a better way. We should have no sacred cows. None.

When we have our Dumpster Parties, there’s the inevitable conversation as something’s headed downstairs to the garbage. “Oh, we should not throw away that widget.” My reply is always, “Tell me when we’re going to use it next.” If there’s not a quick answer that involves a date within a year, it’s off to the trash. I also regularly offer to send these “precious” items home with people who say they cannot be discarded. It’s funny, but quite often something whose value is very high when it comes to church suddenly takes on a very low value when a trip home is contemplated.

This is easy at a parish Dumpster Party (and I’d be glad to collect a modest honorarium as your Dumpster Consultant if you want to implement this program in your parish). Maybe we need to come up with similarly clear questions for diocesan and denominational resources.

Will this lead to sharing the Good News and the transformation of lives? Will this allow us to serve others in Christ’s name? Does this _____ sound like something that would be used in the Spirit-led church of the book of Acts?

Hey, if you’re in Lincoln, RI, stop by this Saturday, March 13, at about 9 a.m. We’ll give you coffee, treats, and lunch if you stick around. We’ll let you apprentice at our Dumpster Party. And we might offer to send you home with something precious, such as a splinter-laden folding chair.

Wave of the reliquary to The Lead.

The photo is a set of relics on display at Basilica di San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome. You can check out that photo and many others from my trip to Italy last spring.

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