Louis F. Kavar: Contemporary Churches--Spiritual Tansformation of Congregations
Spiritual Transformation of Congregations
The premise is simple: The world continues to change, and if the church doesn’t change, too, then the church will no longer be relevant.
Not a new message. Every church and church group I know is wrestling with this. The world feels pretty up-for-grabs right now. What will survive this scary, creative upheaval we’re in? How do we hold on to the essential while holding room for the new?
Just to be clear: it’s the institutional church, not Christianity itself, that’s in danger. Jesus never advocated for institutional structure. “Feed my sheep” was about as specific as he got. His core message of taking care of others, and loving as God loves, that’s never irrelevant. Our packaging of the message changes, but the message doesn’t.
It feels like the packaging is not doing so well these days. But changing it is scary. For some people, it feels like defeat—like we are letting the secular world dictate the importance (or unimportance) of the church. For some people, it feels like loss—like loss of the stability of an institution ‘the way it is supposed to be’. For some, it feels like adventure—like there’s room to create something more and better. For some, it is irrelevant, because church has never been relevant, but they want something that feels relevant.
What I like about Mr. Kavar’s Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations, is that he acknowledges these many, and competing, feelings about church. He doesn’t deny them or argue them away; they are the starting point. But what he does do, that is new in my experience, is to offer a way through, if all participants are willing.
One of the most helpful parts of the book is the discussion of what he terms a spirituality of bereavement. This is a process for a congregation to focus “on living in the midst of the ambiguity which comes from loss of the institutional church as we have known it while moving into a new and yet to be realized kind of community of faith which we cannot yet understand.” It recognizes that grief is a necessary stage of transformation, and if offers a way to honor the grief without letting it stop the transformation.
Anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear recognizes the need for congregations to transform themselves (or continue the ongoing process of transformation) so as to speak to the world’s condition. The world’s condition is not the same one that, in years past, assumed that most people would be church members, or that grew sprawling denominations, or that desires churches to be the hub of all spiritual activity.
Mr. Kavar argues, I think compellingly, that the current condition is a climate of busy, over-extended people who are involved in many layers of activities and groups. Church is not only not everything for people, it’s barely one thing. But church does and can have an important place in people’s lives if we create a new model of church.
What people want and need churches to be are places where we are refreshed, renewed, and equipped to go back into our saturated lives, confident that each aspect of life is an integral part of the spiritual journey. Church is not a substitute for leading a spiritual life; church is the training camp for how to lead a spiritual life.
As Mr. Kavar states: “The local congregation is a lab for processing this way of life; it is a place to share and be supported in the process; it is a place to learn more for the journey the individual is already traveling.”
And that, I think, is the strength of this approach: appreciating and celebrating that people are already on an authentic journey. It doesn’t just happen within the church walls according to our order of worship. We must acknowledge the deep desire of people to live with integrity in all parts of life. We must take seriously the resurging claim that following Jesus is not so much about building up the church as it is about creating the realm of God. Can congregations do that?
If a congregation does want to do that, is willing to take a clear-eyed assessment of its practices and assumptions, and is willing to change, Mr. Kavar has some helpful suggestions. His case studies offer a look at what works and what doesn’t work; and, presents a holistic model that is true to what people are seeking. He asserts that “the experience of Sunday worship must be consonant with every other aspect of church life, whether that is committee meetings, outreach programs, or social events.”
He doesn’t pull any punches. This isn’t easy work. But it is necessary.
If we don’t believe that, then we are not taking seriously our own central texts. Consider the Exodus experience; the Psalms and lamentations; indeed, the Paschal Mystery itself. Each exemplifies the essential pattern of transformation. Only through a painful process of dying and death to the old can the new things that God is creating be born. If we will trust that mystery, then, with God’s help and a lot of work, our communal life will be transformed.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.