John Bowen's most recent book Green Shoots Out of Dry Ground gathers contributions from a broad spectrum of church leaders from around Canada to express a hopeful vision for the future of the church in Canada. One of these contributions comes from Cam Harder, who draws attention to the struggles and opportunities for missional engagement within “town and country churches.” He explains that his interest in the rural churches came because of a discovery during his graduate work that the leaders in the urban churches he was studying had come disproportionately from rural churches. “Apparently, people who grew up in small places assumed that their congregation would not function unless everyone did their part.” (50)
Without putting rural churches on a pedestal, Harder indicates that the smaller, more intimate setting encourages creativity and ownership of the church’s mission and purpose among the members of the church. After reflecting on some of the specific strengths of these smaller churches, Harder suggests that all churches have an opportunity to learn from the body of Christ in these rural communities. Calling for an imaginative wondering, he raises that question: “What gifts do we have besides money, clergy, and buildings out of which to create ministry?” and then adds “too often we judge a church’s viability according to its accumulation of those three resources.” (57)
As an imaginative exercise, I wonder what it would look like to be a church without a budget. For starters, there would likely be at least one less congregational meeting during the year, which means some of our churches would not have any reason to meet during the year. But perhaps, we would actually find ourselves needing to meet more often. What could “Sunday school” look like if we did not purchase a pre-packaged curriculum? What if we focused on discipling our youth through personal relationships with adults, who were willing to mentor young people (and each other) through reading scripture together, prayer, and talking about faith in the context of life as it happens? I wonder if asking “what would our church be like if we had no money” would allow us to better see how we ought to spend the money that God has entrusted to us?
Or what if we were a church without a pastor? I wonder if helping each other discover the gifts that God entrusted to us would take on a new urgency. I wonder what worship might look like, or how we would extend care for each other, or who would step up to teach the creeds and confessions, or lead a Bible study. What if the people of the church became the default leadership pool for these activities, rather than assuming “that’s what we hired the pastor for?” I imagine that we could have some fruitful conversations about the role(s) of our ministry staff if we were willing to first ask: “How would our church disciple, extend care, and reach out if we had no pastor?”
Or what if we were a church without a building? For most of us, I suspect that not having a building would decrease the need to have money (no utilities, no property insurance, no custodial staff or lawn maintenance). But more than that I suspect that if we still wanted to be a church community, we would need to think of creative ways to gather together … and the most likely option would be getting together in each other’s homes. What if our homes became the primary locations of church rather than a building with a fixed address? Would our kids grow up asking “When’s church coming over?” instead of that oft-repeated question “Do I have to go to church?” Would our neighbors be more willing to enter our home (or our backyards) to experience church than they are a designated building? I imagine that we would discover a multitude of different and exciting ways to steward the properties that God has entrusted to our churches if we were willing to ask: “How could we be church together if we had no building?”
Perhaps your church has gone through a season without much of a budget to speak of. Perhaps you are going through a time without a pastor. Perhaps you find yourself without a building in which to gather. What insights do you have about discovering what it means to be church when you don’t have one or more of these resources to rely on?