What would you say to canceling all “non-essential” Church meetings and programs for a full year—culling things down to the core components of weekly worship, of involvement in a Small Group, and of personal, daily devotions?
In his Reclaiming Evangelism, Jan Linn proposes just that as a first step in a path of eleven steps—a path designed to encourage and facilitate the reclamation of core values and vision in mainline churches. While in time it might be worthwhile to visit all eleven steps, it is this first step that captivates me here, now… and it is this first step that I’d like to have you engage with me.
To briefly summarize this first step and its purpose, we might begin with Linn’s affirmation of the importance of “Sabbath”—both as a core Biblical principle and as the root of the concept of “sabbatical”. Sadly, though, it’s a much neglected concept–the need for which, in my mind (and Linn’s), is very clear in the typical American congregation which experiences a lack of clarity, a confusion of purpose and mission, and an exhausting frenzy of activities (which often feel inordinate and uninformed and/or unfocused). He writes:
The church is called to be a community of people who honor sacred time, who understand the importance of Sabbath rest, who know that life consists of more than the accumulation of things, more than the accomplishment of tasks, who know that spiritual strength is the strongest force in the world. But instead the church has become a reflection of the world. Uncomfortable with quiet, we grow anxious with waiting, and weary of praying. Our minds become restless, wondering, filled with things to do, places to go, people to see. We flit in and out of church meetings long enough to make our presence known. We serve only if things can get done, always assuming we know what those things are. We are quick to settle issues with a vote so we can move on to the next item on the agenda. In a church consumed by freneticism, like the world around us, Sabbath time is a call that strikes us as strange and impractical.
As if it’s not clear enough here, elsewhere he writes most clearly and forcibly: “Spiritual stagnation deepens in the soil of freneticism.” (“Freneticism”: now there’s a great word worth looking up… a real adjective for our day and culture!)
Finally–and here is where my real interest and curiosity lies (probably because I have no “argument” with him up to this point),… here’s where I really seek covet your response–Linn gives us some sense of the shape and process of such a congregational “sabbatical”:
A congregational sabbatical can be a time for nurturing spiritual roots, a time for slowing down and taking the time to listen, to pray, and to learn. But it means just what it says—taking a sabbatical from the routine and schedules that define a church’s life. The usual work of committees and departments is suspended, especially the development of programs. Only the bare essentials to keep the machinery going are maintained during sabbatical time. The governing body can attend to necessary business, but this, too, needs to be kept at a minimum. Established groups, such as church school classes, women’s and men’s groups should also be involved in sabbatical time, either by choosing not to meet or focusing their time on prayer and study. The point is to step away from customary activity. Renewal will not occur if the old routine is maintained. It would be like a teacher taking a sabbatical but continuing to teach. It is the break from routine that helps to create the space for something new to emerge.
As suggested, this slowdown/shutdown of regular (and non-essential) programming, meetings, and activities is attended by the redirection of [now freed] energies to more intentional prayer, study and relationship building. Here, Linn encourages two specific components/activities which he believes should be at the heart of the sabbatical year:
- The formation of “Spiritual Life Groups” (SLGs):
- small groups of eight to ten people who focus on (i) prayer, (ii) study, (iii) community building [as members share their “stories” with one another], and (iv) dreaming great dreams for the congregation;
- small groups which, thereby, operate as means/centers for nurturing personal and collective spirituality; and
- small groups which meet weekly and maintain a fairly regular structure/format each week—e.g., a significant portion of each meeting in prayer and worship, observing and affirming the importance of silence (i.e., every meeting beginning with five or ten minutes of silence before anything is said), etc.
- The heightened commitment of all church members to daily disciplines of the faith and spiritual nurture (prayer, study, etc) to the end that individuals and families assume greater responsibility for their own spiritual health and growth.
So, what do you think?
Personally, I am very attracted to the concept. Something inside me is stirred by a proposal like this which feels like a real return to the basics. Deep down, it feels like Church the way Church was and is meant to be: a part of the solution to our culture’s sicknesses and not a part of the problem! But, then, I cannot fully trust myself here. After all, my attraction to this idea might be tied to more selfish interests—interests related to a simplified life with less meetings, less clutter,… So, here, I check myself—honestly seeking the input of others who might have less of a “conflict of interest” in the proposal.
So, again, I ask you: “what do you think?”
Would it work?
Would it be beneficial?
Would things fall apart?
Would it really give us a chance for re-vision… and significant “revisioning”?
Would folks leave for the lack of activity… or be drawn to us as a church seeking to be a “sanctuary in the midst of a hectic world”? (I use quotation marks here because those words are/were, in fact, a vision statement set forth here at Strawbridge a few years ago.)
In the spirit that good questions are as valuable as polished answers, I look forward to your responses… and the dialogue.