What Diana Butler Bass calls the “horrible decade” for American churches, which began at the turn of the century, shows no sign of letting up. In hindsight, these troubles started several decades earlier as people became increasingly disillusioned. The past decade was simply the tipping point. Furthermore, faith communities and churches have gone through much worse throughout human history. Such epochs have often been times of imaginative creativity as religious people renewed, reformed, and reinvented their faith communities. Our time calls for such reimagining and experimentation.
Historical examples are of Moses leading the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and through a painful but liberating journey of being recreated as a people of God as they wandered in the wilderness. Another is of the Jewish exiles in Babylon in 586 BCE who were forced to reinvent their faith tradition in a foreign land or watch it die. The prophet Ezekiel’s grim vision of a valley full of dry bones depicts their desperate situation and the question too horrible to be answered, “Can these bones live?” The prophet answers, “God, only you know?” (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
They began the task of recreating themselves and their faith tradition through inventing the synagogue as a community center and place of worship. They undertook the long and arduous task of writing their scriptures, which became their primary medium of identification as a religious community. Scripture and synagogue substituted for their former identity markers of land and temple. The local synagogue, with a membership of at least ten households, became the nucleus of their newly created faith community. An informal, nonhierarchical network of such synagogue communities gradually spread throughout the ancient world and Babylon became one of the primary cultural centers of Judaism until well into the Middle Ages (John Howard Yoder, For the Nations, 57-60).
This model of Jewish faith was at the heart of Jesus’ mission of resisting the imperial socio-religious order in first century Palestine and renewing covenant communities of faith and cooperation among ordinary, subject people (Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire, 14). It was then further adapted by the early church assemblies that sprang up throughout the Mediterranean world following Jesus’ death. These churches were much more than places of worship. They were centers of political and economic solidarity and cooperation (Richard Horsley, Paul and Empire, 208-9).
These historical examples of renewal can inspire us as we imagine and experiment with new ways of being the church in response to our particular circumstances. Our congregation recently began a long-term planning process. One Sunday morning, in place of a sermon, we talked with each about our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. We saw opportunities in exploring new ways to support each other, in outreach and cooperation in our community, and in using the woods on our property as a nature sanctuary. All this seemed to jell around the concept of being a village. I can see a family resemblance to what those Jewish exiles in Babylon came up with several thousand years ago.