The Becoming of the Church
in Post-Christian America
Reflections by Bruce Epperly
See also What does a Process Church look like?
and Generous Orthodoxy: How Christians can help the World
On a warm July morning, as I was walking the country roads of North Truro (outer Cape Cod), I saw for the first time a sign just around the bend from my wife’s congregation, alerting drivers with the words “Church Ahead.” The obvious meaning of the sign was that “there’s a church around the corner, slow down, take care, there might be worshippers crossing the road.” Yet, as I pondered the sign, another image came to mind, “the church that lies ahead of us,” “the church to come,” or the “church that is being called forward.”
These are interesting times for church folk in North America. There are a growing number of “nones” and “dones” – persons with no discernible religious identity and people who have left the church (for good or for now) due to boredom, conflict, disillusionment, or lack of time. They don’t miss church or feel guilty about their absence. A good book, workshop, retreat, yoga or Tai Chi class, hike in the woods or walk on the beach, or Sunday morning coffee with the New York Times are just as soul-satisfying as Sunday worship. Moreover, church involvement must compete with soccer, ice hockey, baseball, and basketball on Sundays.
The present and future signal that the days of “Christian America” are numbered. While Christianity will remain the primary faith of North Americans for the foreseeable future, people have literally thousands of religious options, not to mention the possibilities embedded in the emerging religious pluralism of our multi-cultural society. Our changing spiritual context invites us to ponder – and perhaps create – the outlines of “Church Ahead.”
“Church Ahead” is wide open to possibility. I say this as the pastor of a historical, white steeple New England church, a congregation that is steeped in tradition, yet open to adventure. I speak as a pastor who seeks to embody an open-spirited, theologically-accessible process theology in my preaching and teaching. While my congregation – South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, Massachusetts – is not a “process theology” church, in fact, it is a mixture of progressives and conservatives, we are growing in our affirmation of God’s presence in the varieties of spiritual experience, Christian, non-Christian, and non-religious.
This adventure is a work in progress with no clear destination or assurance of success. We are reaching out with new forms of worship, classes in reiki healing touch and meditation, adult bible studies that join prayer and the best scholarship of our time, and thematic courses dealing with themes such as survival after death, Christianity and the world’s religions, and Jesus in the 21st Century as well as a women’s spirituality group. In the spirit of Bernard Loomer, we are seeking to become a congregation of stature, embracing novelty as well as tradition, mysticism as well as ritual, ritual as well as spontaneity, God’s presence in seekers as well as congregants, and the holiness of relationships of all kinds.
We are a congregation in process like so many today. Do you recognize your congregation in my descriptions? Who knows what the future will bring or what lies ahead; but it will be an adventure. In the months to come, I will share insights from my pilgrimage as pastor-teacher on the “Church Ahead” as images of hope in a pluralistic, postmodern, post-Christian age.
I hope you’ll join me and share your own insights as we chart new courses on the horizon of creative transformation. Look out! Church Ahead!