Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have written a compelling book about what they call “Walk Outs Who Walk On”. Here is how they define these so-called “Walk Outs”:
Walk Outs are people who bravely choose to leave behind a world of unsolvable problems, scarce resources, limiting beliefs and destructive individualism. They walk on to the ideas, beliefs and practices that enable them to give birth to new systems that serve community. This is the story of an emerging movement of pioneering leaders and communities around the world who are self-organizing to create healthy and resilient communities.
Does that speak to and challenge the church today, or what?
I’ve found their idea to be so life-giving as a community leader, lay minister and former church planter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against healthy tradition (who was it who said ‘tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living’?). Nor am I against healthy, compassionate, Spirit-led hierarchy and leadership – I am Anglican after all. Nor do I buy into the mentality that all things that have to do with institutions, organized religion or denominations are inherently corrupt or oppressive. And finally, I don’t believe in lightly walking away from communities of faith because they’re so messed up, their leadership sucks and they just don’t serve my needs. There’s a deep importance to rooting oneself in place and in relationship with people over time – and not just being a transient spiritual consumer.
At the same time there is trouble afoot. Whether mainline, evangelical, charismatic or Catholic (I’ve been all of those – I can’t speak for the Orthodox), the churches as organizations are struggling. As an institution, the centre can no longer hold. I’m not primarily talking about numbers here – I’m talking about the Spirit-led redemption and healing and health of people in Jesus’ name – that is the task of the Church on earth. Numbers on a Sunday morning are merely one symptom of the bigger trouble.
Big trouble? Wheatley and Frieze speak about organizations that ‘no longer have the capacity to create solutions to the problems they were created to solve.’ – and I have seen that at play more than a few times in my years of serving in the church. They call it impotence. This is especially heart-breaking when we consider the profound spiritual role the Church is supposed to have in the lives of God’s people and in God’s creation.
What are we, those who are passionate, who are dreamers, who feel called to follow Jesus with our whole lives as part of His Church to do?
There are a few options:
One could simply bail on the organization / denomination / parish / congregation / community. Do our own thing. Be an individual believer, or part of small group. Start our own church (God knows I could do it better!). Become post-denominational or post-organizational. We’ve all been hurt. Some of us have gone from church to church and heck, guess what – they all suck! Of course, with that ‘bailing’ option there is a strong risk of rampant individualism, unhealthy and schismatic prone sects (often personality or single issue-driven) and – perhaps most tragically – a loss of all the very real good that these organizations at their best hold (resources such as living traditions, gifted people, histories, elders, values). Walking out and on is vastly different than just walking away.
Another option is apathy. Just do as we’ve always done. At worst we can get our spiritual fill elsewhere – maybe on a hiking trail or a yoga class – and still be passive recipients of what a dying church has to offer. We can exist (even as leaders – at least if we still get our paycheques) in the church for the good it has, even if it means watching the organization’s own suicide – or even our individual and even collective spiritual stasis. Of course, if the biologists are right – then stasis – becoming static – is tantamount to a slow death. I don’t think this is an option if we are called to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ.
Is there a third way? Wheatley and Frieze suggest that “Walk Outs who Walk On” – especially those who stay within the organizations and institutions have to embody dual roles: to “be thoughtful and compassionate in attending to what’s dying… [and] to be experimenters, pioneers, edge-walkers.” (I would add bridge-builders to their list). I believe that walking this tightrope, doing this dance this takes courage, conviction, passion and prayer. I think it’s a good and healthy place to be.
I also believe that (as someone else said) at the end of the day, to talk of the death of the Church is just bad theology. The mystical body of Christ transcends whatever cultural blips and trends that it may be experiencing at this point in human history. Of course, this is all the more reason to prayerfully walk out and walk on – ideally (and paradoxically) from within. For the Christian, this means being part of a hope-filled movement that, led by the Holy Spirit, seeks to renew the Church as a cruciform organization – as a body of people, a community, a movement that follows Christ to the cross and then practices resurrection. Now this is exciting (if not a bit daunting and terrifying)!
Speaking about Anglicanism – though he could have been speaking about pretty much any Christian communion – my friend Andrew Stephens-Rennie wrote these provocative (and dare I say prophetic) words on the empireremixed blog earlier last year:
What if we died to ourselves, our desire for power, and the need to prove a point? What if we stopped hanging on to the way things have always been, the need to hold things together, and allowed new and fragile expressions to emerge from our sacrifice?
What if we allowed our dreamers to dream new dreams, to point us towards a path of life. What if the royal consciousness of our hierarchy was replaced by a disruptive, prophetic imagination?
What if such imagination was not captive to the narrative of power and control, of friend and foe, of us and them, but were to give birth to new life, new adventures, new possibilities in rich, fertile soil?
And what if our aging expressions of church, what if our once-powerful bureaucracies issued a final DNR order for when death finally comes? How would such willing sacrifice be honoured, and what nutrients would be offered up to new life for generations to follow?
Dreaming new dreams. Death of the old. Nutrients offered up for generations to follow. New life. The resurrection story. As Peter Maurin said: “Building a new society in the shell of the old”. Now we’re talking.
This won’t always be easy. It may mean turning down alluring jobs, paycheques or various forms of prestige within the organizations. To walk the edge, to pioneer will involve sacrifice, and we’ll need to take care of each other and ourselves as we take these risks as we build new systems which nurture deep community.
So, where do we begin? In the alleys and coffee shops. On the trails and the shelters and drop-ins. On farm fields and the home. Even in the old musty churches. Let’s talk. Let’s dream. Let’s listen. Let’s pray. Let’s begin to re-imagine church as a joyful, cross-shaped, resurrection-practicing community. In doing so, let’s leave behind our perceptions that problems are unsolvable and resources scarce even as we risk living and proclaiming the Kingdom of God here and now.
My favorite blog post from last year is called A Growing Church is a Dying Church. It’s a neat companion piece to what I’ve written about here – a bit of a counter-point even. For more on Walk Out, Walk On – check out walkoutwalkon.net.