The starfish church
Taking the priesthood of all believers seriously.
I’m working from memory here, so I don’t know how accurate this is going to be. But I was listening to a couple of podcasts recently.
One of them included an interview with Diana Butler Bass where she mentioned talking to some church leaders about being the church in a post-Christian society.
Those church leaders complained—as church leaders often do—that no one reserved Sunday mornings for church anymore. There are soccer matches and basketball games and volleyball tournaments. And parents who are asked to make a choice between church and a sport that their child enjoys—and that might include scholarship money in a few years—will choose the sport every time. Especially when attendance at the soccer match or basketball game or volleyball tournament or whatever is mandatory.
So Diana Butler Bass asked the church leaders if there were any Jewish communities in America. And the church leaders replied that of course there were. And Diana Butler Bass pointed out that there have always been soccer matches and basketball games and volleyball tournaments on Saturdays.
The point should be obvious. Christianity should not depend on our wider society making a space for it; and church engagement should not depend on there being absolutely nothing better going on. We need to imagine and embody a better way.
The other one included an interview with someone important, but I don’t remember who. And this person talked about the difference between starfish and monkeys.
Starfish have a pretty simple body plan: a central disk with five or more arms radiating out. The central disk has the mouth and digestive system, and each arm contains a copy of all of the other organs that the starfish needs.
For most starfish, if you cut an arm off of the starfish, it will simply grow another one. For some starfish, if you cut most of the arms off but the central disk remains, it will grow the rest of its body back. And for some starfish, if you cut off everything but an arm, it will grow everything else back.
Basically, for some starfish, every arm contains all of the instructions and materials necessary to build a new starfish.
Monkeys have a more complicated body plan. But if you cut an arm off of a money, all you get is a monkey arm and an angry monkey. The monkey can’t grow a new arm; and the arm can’t grow a new monkey.
And all of that got me thinking.
The church lives in a tension.
On the one hand, the church is a community. We are the disciples and the earthly body of Christ. And even though we each have different gifts that make us dependent on each other for the good of the community, we all stand before God as equals. As a pastor, I bring specific skills to the table and have specific responsibilities to the church, but I am no more or less a part of the body than anyone else in the church.
On the other hand, the church is a consumer product. Church—in some sense, at least—is this thing that the pastor does with the help of some volunteers. And the rest of the people are folks who show up on Sunday morning to consume the product that the pastor produces (or don’t if there’s a soccer match or a basketball game or a volleyball tournament). As a pastor, I am a content creator, and I am both really important because I create the content and really dependent because I rely on other people to consume it.
And that tension is a problem because we have all—clergy and laity, thriving churches and troubled churches, engaged people and disengaged people, progressive churches and conservative churches—leaned into the consumer model. And, at the risk of stretching a metaphor beyond the breaking point, the consumer model is a monkey that competes with other monkeys for people’s attention.
It is a monkey because if any part is cut off, it’s just gone. And it is in competition because any part might cut itself off for the sake of more interesting soccer matches or basketball games or volleyball tournaments.
I want to be clear that this is partly the fault of clergy.
Once before I was ordained, a friend of mine asked me to provide pulpit supply at the church where he served. This was a long time after seminary, so he had no reason to think that I had never gotten around to being ordained. And this church practiced communion every week, so I had to tell him that I was not ordained. And he was fine with it. So I provided pulpit supply and I presided over communion and everything was fine.
When I finally got around to going through the ordination process, I told that story to a committee of people—both clergy and laity—whose job was to decide whether I should move forward in that process. And one of the clergy on that committee asked me why, if I thought that I could just go around presiding over communion, I wanted to be ordained at all. What was the point?
And maybe I’ll write about that sometime. But for now I just want to point out that this was an example of a clergy person protecting their little fiefdom of grace. After all, if anyone can preside over communion—or interpret the scriptures, or preach the gospel, or perform baptisms, or whatever—then why do we have clergy? We could still have experts and church staff and all of those kinds of things. We just wouldn’t need an ordination process or ordained people or anyone to have authority over the ordination process and the ordained people.
We have declared ourselves content creators. We have taught people that they are consumers. And now we are reaping the consequences of that: we are facing the fact that there are a lot of content creators, and there is a lot of content, and, often, we are not very good at creating the kinds of content that draw people’s attention.
So this is partly the fault of clergy. This is also partly the fault of the lay people who rolled over and let clergy take all of this authority for ourselves. But the simple fact is that we, as clergy, are the ones who should have known better.
Of course, clergy are not supposed to be content creators and churches are not supposed to be consumer products. The church is supposed to be a community. The church is supposed to be a body.
The church is supposed to be a starfish.
Imagine what would change if we thought about the church—and here I mean the church as the organization or institution or whatever—as the central disk and every person in the church as one of the arms. And then imagine what would change if we operated on the assumption that every one of those arms should be equipped and empowered to grow another church.
Maybe that would be a church among their family at home. Maybe that would be a church among their friends at school. Maybe that would be a church among their friends at game night. Maybe that would be a church among people and in a place that we can scarcely imagine.
Maybe that would be a church that would be disconnected from its original central disk. Maybe that would be a church that—stretching the metaphor again—would remain connected to its original central disk. Maybe that would be a church that looks a lot like its parent church. Maybe that would be a church that looks very different.
And maybe, just maybe, that would help the church—and here I mean the church as the community of disciples or the body of Christ or whatever—stop being a consumer product and return to being a community. Maybe that would help clergy stop being content creators and return to being fellow travelers and coaches.
So that’s what I’m thinking about right now. And the question that I’m asking is how I start getting the congregation that I serve to think of itself as a starfish.
Oh, hey. A quick notice that we’re about to head into Holy Week. So there will almost certainly not be a post next week. Have a contemplative Holy Week and a happy Easter!