Advent is the season of expectation. Yes, we are expectant in Advent of the yearly celebration of Christmas, but Advent is so much more than that. The first three Sundays of Advent have little or nothing directly to say about the birth of Jesus at all. They, instead, desire to sharpen our expectation, or readiness, for the breaking in of God's kingdom, in the sense of what we pray on a daily basis, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
This petition from the Lord's Prayer is not a prayer that we wait for our time in heaven. It is a prayer that we participate with God in the "breaking-in" of heaven on earth. We are an expectant people, who act on that expectation in our daily lives.
What does this have to do with the church? Well, here's my question for today: What if the church were more about expectant action than about institutional maintenance?
There has been a lot of talk about becoming a missional, rather than a maintenance, driven church, and this has been a good conversation that has produced some good action. My concern, which I learned from my friend Verna Dozier many years ago, is that we will be satisfied with an increased level of good deeds, but still be very much out of step with the living God, who desires the transformation of the world.
We have yet to hear much about what an expectant, missional, transformational church would look like. We hear words like "nimble," but I have the impression that is a word that sounds right, but few would no what it looked like if they met it walking down the street.
The world does not see, by and large, a "nimble" church. It sees a church that spends massive amounts of its time and money and energy resources on buildings that are monuments to a past that is long gone. As symbols, our buildings belie the truth of who we are and what we are called to do. They appear to the world more as fortresses than as safe havens. The world also sees a church that is obsessed with its hierarchy and uses as its leadership model, on local, diocesan, and national levels (I speak as an Episcopalian), the CEO, his or her senior staff, and the company's Board of Directors.
We do not govern ourselves in a pastoral model. We govern ourselves in a corporate model. Bishops relationships with the clergy of the diocese, for instance, are increasingly restricted along legal lines. When a local priest gets in any trouble, or even a predicament, the bishop's first call is too often to the diocesan attorney, who is the one who sets the tone of the relationship from this time forward.
I will not downplay the difficulty of all this corporate action. Church's are non-profit businesses and boards (vestries) are fiduciary agents. Having said that, the conversation usually stops.
I wonder, however, when we will realize that one of the things repelling people from us is how we govern ourselves and present ourselves to the world. We desperately need a conversation about this reality. If we are having it I am not aware of it. We talk about "Re-imagining the Episcopal Church" but my observation is that particular conversation has only produced ways to make the corporate model work more "nimbly." I think, however, we need to have a deeper and more serious and risky conversation about how the corporate model has become our obsession, and how we re-claim the pastoral model--whatever that would look like in the 21st century--as our heart once again.
I repeat the question: What if the church were more about expectant action than about institutional maintenance? Or better yet, what if the church embraced expectant, pastoral action as its only reason for being?