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Church Gone Bye-Bye

by Mary Domb Mikkelson

     My keys disappeared one day, my then 2-year-old elder son with them.

     Scott surfaced soon thereafter.

     “Have you seen Mommy’s keys?” I asked, optimistically.  (I was new to the world of parenting toddler boys.)

     “Keys gone bye-bye,” he replied.

     And “bye-bye” they stayed, in both conversation and reality, until the next time Scott dumped his blocks onto the floor.  My keys had been at the bottom of the box, “under the radar,” so to speak.

     This family story (the kind you remind your kids of over Thanksgiving dinner) came to mind recently during a Sunday school discussion.  We were exploring the concept of “open-source spirituality,” the assimilation of ideas and practices from other faith traditions into our own – raising hands in prayer, for example, or  Lectio Divina – and the possible “plus” of shedding biases based on preconceptions of who “those people” are and what they believe.

     The discussion veered in several directions – from mentors who and events which influenced our faith journeys to being asked to imagine a world without religious leaders or houses of worship – a world in which church has “gone bye-bye,” in which “the only way Christian faith could survive was through people living it and passing it on to others through friendship and daily informal interaction.”1  Or, possibly, in which church, either as an organization or “people-delivered,” chose or was forced to exist under the radar.

     Which is when things got really interesting…

     History, of course, is replete with religious organizations forced underground, believers risking imprisonment, torture and death by practicing their faith – the USSR, China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea come to mind.  Think, too, of the Inquisition, the colonists who came to America in search of religious freedom (then, in some cases, denied it to others), Tzarist pogroms and Nazi ovens, Mormons hounded from state to state, Christians hiding in ancient Rome’s catacombs and scratching fish symbols in the dirt (until, of course, Constantine converted), plans to burn the Qu’ran…the list is long.

     Even today, seeking the peace of anonymity or reacting to threats perceived in the cultural climate, some believers choose to congregate quietly.  As Ronald Takaki wrote about Korean-American churches in Strangers from a Distant Shore: A History of Asian Americans, they “largely under the radar screen…provide a wide range of social and community services.”  The same has been said of African-American churches, churches which share the legacy of southern (notably Texan) freedmen’s towns, where recently freed – and still fearful – slaves built new societies and practiced their faith.  (Interestingly, Rick Warren, founder of the ginormous Saddleback Church, claims to have operated under the radar for 23 years – until “my blasted book…blew my cover” and states, “every pastor in America knew who I was because I put all of my sermons on an internet site and it gets 400,000 hits a day from pastors…so, instead of me teaching it on the radio or TV, we put it on the Internet and we allow other pastors to take this material and use it.”)

     Other examples run the gamut from informal intentional communities created when a few friends buy adjacent houses and remove the fences to apostate LDS settlements in Arizona and Mexico where polygamy thrives. 

    What would happen if Christianity, which surveys suggest is being decimated by dropouts, were itself to move under the radar, happening not in buildings but within people, where it can’t be measured?  Interesting thought.  Might, perhaps, God’s people then fulfill their part of God’s contract with them – “The time is coming…I will put my law within them – write in on their hearts! – and be their God.  And they will be my people…They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow.  I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them.  I’ll forget they ever sinned! (Jeremiah 31:33, The Message).2

     I recently heard this heartfelt commentary from someone who loves the UCC:  “If it continues on its current course, I doubt it will exist 30 years from now.”

     Not “You won’t recognize it” but “it won’t exist.”  The former posits change – to, perhaps, an electronic church with social media both pulpit and community; the latter predicts failure, change challenged and ultimately refused (\ri-ˈfyüz\ed) or, perhaps, “refused” (\ˈre-fyüs\ed).  Church gone bye-bye.

     Milder, but still distressing, is this summation of UCC status, “’Mainline churches,’ like the UCC have now become ‘sidelined churches.”3

     Okay…presume the worst.   There’s a “For Sale” sign on your church (there’s one on my former church right now).  The minister is working for an insurance company and the choir director and organist are frantically looking for more worldly gigs.  The faith community in which you were loved and nurtured is no more.  And it’s not just yours but all.     Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples – all gone bye-bye.  What then?

     Sara Miles, in Take This Bread, recalls her life in war-torn Central America, a life that spurred her eventual journey into faith – “…I saw all around me how fear and need drove…people to terrible betrayals.  Yet over and over, I also saw how war created a community, a people, and how that community was nourished by gestures of sharing.  It was sharing that didn’t depend on personal intimacy, and a community that didn’t depend on everyone’s being friends; it foreshadowed what I would come to understand as church, at its best.”

     Church at its best, church which has moved from “maintenance to mission…making (its) theology more accessible to the general population,”4 perhaps by using “fast-moving and interactive mediums like blogs, Facebook and YouTube and “worship styles and spiritual practices (that are) more adventurous, engaging, interactive, ancient-yet-innovative and Christ-centered.”

     The Emergent Church – speaking “relevantly and passionately about the big issues of the day from an overtly theological perspective” and “finding ways of being more overt and passionate about following God in the Way of Jesus.”5 

     More and more the Emergent Church is being spoken of as the hope of mainline Christianity, the solution to the threat of “church gone bye-bye.”   I sure hope so.

     While I know but relatively little about the Emergent Church, I am inspired and encouraged by that little.  I intend to know more, much more.

     Join me?

1McLaren, Brian,Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, p. 66
2See also Hebrews 10:16
 3Extreme Makeover:  UCC Edition,
4 ibid
5 ibid

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