On the eve of Christopher’s return from holiday I want to ask a question I have been puzzling over for several months now.

At a clergy conference in June whose topic was “Worship and Mission after Christendom” somebody asked the most penetrating and unsettling question.  It never got answered.  In fact, since it was asked at the beginning of the conference, for me it cast a great pall over all the discussions and earnest presentations.

“In a post-Christendom context what does success look like for the church?”

When we acknowledge that the days are over when the church buildings were full because participation in the religion of the culture was a social norm…what does success look like?  Does filling a building that was built in the 1950’s to house the last three generations of cultural Christians indicate success in 2011?

Does producing enough free-will offering to support a full-time priest, part-time musician and pay for upkeep on an aging building indicate success in 2011?

What does “success” even mean?  It seems that many folks in churchland have a fairly insistent intuition that everything is not ok, that there is some situation or ideal that we are not meeting or achieving.  Certainly from the standpoint of financial sustainability this is true…but is that the measuring stick we want to use?  Do we even want to talk about success?  Whether we want to use it or not, however, it is clear that our models of being church are not reliable any longer from a purely resource-based perspective.  What does this tell us?  Surely we are invited to respond rather than just shut off the lights and lock the doors when the last dollar is spent.

But how do we respond?

It strikes me that what is vitally important to times of transition, times of crisis, times of liminality when we are betwixt and between what has ceased to be and what is yet to come is one thing:  Vision.  So who are the vision keepers for the communities of followers of Jesus Christ?  Who are the prophets who are calling us to the new thing God is doing in our midst?  What are the stories being told that animate our imagination, that stir our hearts, to be the Body of Christ in our strange time and space?  God, it seems, has led us once more into the desert, once more into the tomb of Holy Saturday.  Who has the courage to beat the drum to a different beat, to start a new dance, to find the room in our hearts to celebrate a God who is, still, far larger than we had believed.

For one thing is certain.  God has not abandoned us.  The fact that the old structures are passing away is only evidence of the fact that those signs of human making were not, in the end, God at all but only ever icons of God’s Presence.  The Presence itself, the Eternal, was never contained by a building, or a particular pattern, or a certain social context, even if it seemed so for a time.

I think another thing is certain.   The phoenix that emerges from the ashes will not be entirely novel.  The future assembly of followers of Jesus will recognize itself in continuity with the One Holy and Ancient Story that is the heartbeat of all times and all places:  Out of death comes life.  The Mystery of Easter is the story that burns like a flame at the heart of our humanity.  It is just as likely that our search for authenticity will lead us to discover hidden layers of ancient patterns and practices, symbols and stories, which will reveal a dimension that was previously veiled from our understanding, as it will be that something entirely new is discovered.  To be sure, it will be new but it will also be old.

Where are we going?  Who will lead us?  Tell us a travelling story that will stoke the fire in our hearts when the path grows faint and the light dims.