This past spring The Contemplative Society website (http://www.contemplative.org/) posted 12 summary statements about the future of church I gleaned from a Lenten Series I attended, accompanied by a response from Cynthia Bourgeault. With Cynthia’s encouragement, I am reposting the original paragraph, followed by her response, and my response to Cynthia. We hope this may generate some conversation. Cynthia will check in and respond to comments if she feels inspired.

7. People want to learn spiritual practices. They want wisdom for the journey of life. If the church is going to meet these real desires, we must put aside our obsession with the institution and explore the presence and action of God’s Spirit at work in our lives, in our churches, and beyond the church in unexpected places throughout the world. Where we find God’s Spirit at work, we must cooperate with and celebrate that work, even when it seems unusual and unsettling to our established ways of doing church.

Cynthia: Just like Jesus did it.

Christopher: Maybe Jesus was not the only one able to look beyond the predictable parameters of the established religious life of his day and find the surprising work of God present in unexpected places.

It seems that Jesus’ earliest disciples were able to follow his example and think outside the box. The accounts of the first Christian community give evidence that Christians started out with an ability to live beyond the rigidity of an organizational structure that had yet to become set in the concrete of institutional attachment.

In the New Testament book of “The Acts of the Apostles,” while Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit came unexpectedly upon a group of Gentiles. This was clearly outside the Christian community’s self-understanding. It was a contradiction of their established sense of identity. They were “astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45) Their paradigm was shattered.

In response to the evident work of God’s Spirit, Peter asked,

Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have’ (Acts 10:45)

Peter was able to open to the new thing God was doing in their midst. Community identity was able to expand to embrace the new reality God was clearly bringing into being. The earliest Christians refused to enshrine their identity in fixed laws and immutable practices. Instead, they found their identity in deep trust and confidence in the work of God’s Spirit in unexpected and surprising ways.

Today Christians must acknowledge that God’s Spirit is at work in places we might find astonishing. God’s Spirit is moving in the lives of people we might have believed were outside the parameters of God’s embrace and in communities and events that exist beyond the confines of traditional church life. God is speaking to people in sacred texts that lack the authority of canonical tradition. People are developing sacred liturgies and spiritual practices that express their deepest experience of life, while lacking any form of ecclesial authorization.

These are exciting times of exploration and discovery. The wind of the Spirit is blowing outside the established parameters of tradition and of accepted church structure. Everything is open to question. It is no longer possible to assume automatic adherence to the received faith formulations of the past or the authorized liturgical practices of church hierarchy.

But are there any limits? Are there any parameters that can appropriately define a coherent sense of Christian identity?

If we accept everything, will we eventually stand for nothing? How do we define the edges of the playing field so the game can be played with some degree of order and depth? At the same time, how do we keep the edges of the playing field from being so rigidly defined that the game loses all vitality and energy?

It is easy to rail against those I perceive to be defining the boundaries too tightly for my liking. But if an organization is to have any consistent identity, there must be some agreed upon parameters that shape our life together.

We in the Christian church are not the only ones who struggle with the tension between freedom and parameters.

Tim Olmsted is a Tibetan Buddhist dharma teacher in Colorado and the founder of the Buddhist Center of Steamboat Springs. In a recent interview with “Tricycle Magazine,” Olmsted spoke about his anxieties that, in an attempt to accommodate itself to a western context, Buddhist teaching is being watered down and losing its transformative power.

Tricycle: So you’re concerned that the heart of dharma is being jettisoned in favor of feel-good shortcuts?

Olmsted: If this presentation of the path is approached by people with enthusiasm—and it works for them—then I’m interested in what we can learn from that. Recently, I was talking to one of Tulku Urgyen’s sons about Buddhism in the West—about how the message has been repackaged in order to be palatable to Westerners. He said that he feared that the experiment might not work, because in this process we might run the risk of losing the power of the dharma.

Tricycle: The power?

Olmsted: The power to transform. There’s a completely understandable desire to adapt the dharma to what Westerners can handle. But we run the risk of taking the heart and the power out of it. And if the power goes out of it, people won’t have the personal experiences that will carry them far along the path. Then the whole thing might simply collapse.

As much as some might wish we could, it is difficult to avoid the reality that for the Christian church the message of the Gospel needs to be “repackaged in order to be palatable to Westerners.” The word “palatable” sounds strangely pejorative. It feels like a cop-out, as if we are being invited to sell ourselves short simply to win adherents, soft-peddling the message of discipleship in order to offend no one. But there is not much virtue in being unpalatable. Little will be gained by pushing people away simply for the sake of clinging to old formulations and archaic expressions of faith. If no one is listening to our carefully protected message, it is unlikely we will become a force for transformation in peoples’ lives and in the world.

What is “the heart and power” that must be preserved? How do we decide what is mere packaging and what can appropriately be adapted to fit a new context?

I sense resistance in the church to even address these questions. We are so insecure in our identity that we can only reassert that things must be done as they have always been done. We try to tinker a little with the packaging. But, when it comes to any kind of radical change, we are simply unable to move outside the safety of our established patterns. It is almost impossible for us, from the sheltered confines of our church fortress, to imagine anything different than the way things have always been.

We are paralyzed by the fear that we will let go of too much. We fear that “the whole thing might simply collapse.” But, to govern our life together driven by our fear is an unlikely strategy to preserve the power of the living presence of Christ in our midst.

Transformational change will only begin when we find the confidence within ourselves to confront the deep questions. What idols are we clinging to that hinder the free work of God’s Spirit in our midst? What unnecessary boundaries have we erected that keep the world from seeing the light of Christ in our midst?