The Self-Organizing Congregation

by Sarai Rice

Most congregations occupy buildings. They gather for meetings around long or round tables in the library or parlor. They worship in the sanctuary. They learn in classrooms. And when they want to eat, they organize in the kitchen and sit together in the fellowship hall. Their buildings have been designed for these kinds of activities, and these activities are shaped by their buildings.

How, then, does a congregation imagine a new way of being “church” that is adapted to social media rather than meetings as a primary way to connect?  How does it respond to the growing number of people who are “spiritual but not religious” and who want nothing to do with the kind of organized religion that happens inside a traditional space?  How do we think outside of the “box” when we keep building the same “box,” albeit sometimes in the round and sometimes as an A-frame? And how do we think outside the box that shaped not just our understanding of what it means to be church but also our parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ understanding?

In short, how do we think outside the building that has literally shaped our faith?

First, I believe that “outside” is part of the answer as well as the question.  We’ve spent most of church history living inside our buildings, perhaps initially to protect ourselves from antagonists but mostly because we like it there.  Whether through the use of clerestory windows or stained glass or solid walls and theater-style lighting, we’ve created spaces in which the troubling outside world is mostly invisible. And because we’ve filled those spaces with music, art, and padded seats, lots of people have always wanted to come in.

But now, our traditional holy spaces don’t seem to be attracting people the way they used to, and suddenly we have a problem – we can’t figure out what it means to be “church” if no one wants to be in a Sunday School room or a sanctuary anymore.

Some congregations have begun to adapt to this new world by moving their work outside their walls.  In my workshops, for instance, I talk about yoga studio prayer groups and brewery Bible Studies and contemplative walking clubs that happen where people already are rather than expecting those people to come to church.

And I explain that social media is a means through which 20- and 30-somethings actually find and nurture deep relationship, not just a way of avoiding connection and community.

And I use metaphors like imagining the church as a mango—a bit mysterious and formidable from the outside, but wildly beautiful and accessible when halved, scored, and turned inside out.

Recently, though, I’ve begun to tell a story.

I live near Iowa State University, and ISU has a student group called the Atheists and Agnostics Society. Here’s what I know about this group:

  • Some of the students in this group are fairly settled in their beliefs, or perhaps more appropriately in their un-beliefs, but some are still “in the closet” as far as family and friends are concerned. They come to the group’s meetings to see if anyone else is asking the same questions they’re asking.
  • The group meets in generic university space.
  • They have regular, weekly “ask an atheist” events in an outdoor area at the center of campus during which members respond to passers-by on all kinds of faith questions, including questions about the content and meaning of the Bible.
  • They invite speakers from around the country to come to campus, and they raise money to fund these events.
  • This year’s leader of the group writes about his atheism on his Facebook page and has about 75 regular followers.
  • The group was recently asked by a local retirement community to send someone to speak with an older adult who was struggling physically and who shared the group’s perspective.

Some of you may have recognized the significance of the number 75 in this description – 75 is the median size of a congregation in the United States. And the group looks like a congregation in other ways as well:

  • It raises money, although not for staff, boilers, or roofs.
  • Participants provide support for each other as well as a safe place to talk about the purpose and meaning of life.
  • Each “generation” mentors the next into leadership roles.
  • They communicate with each other and non-members using “old-fashioned” media like posters, face-to-face conversation, and the newspaper, but they also text and use social media.
  • They also communicate through events that literally take place “outside” where everyone can see them, presumably in much the same way that Jesus and the apostles must have done.
  • The group is even able to provide something that might be called “pastoral care.”

Without a building, and for that matter without staff or budget, this group of young people has self-organized into something that looks very much like a congregation.

And this could be what some of our congregations might look like without the superstructure of buildings, staff and budgets that most of us think are fundamental to church. This is very hard to wrap our brains around, like trying to imagine what a turtle might look like without its shell. But it may be that, for some of our congregations to find new life in a new world, we need to shed some of our familiar shells. Perhaps we can learn, even from a young group of atheists and agnostics, how to re-organize our churches into communities of believers who study, pray, and preach in full view of the world and do not depend on our buildings to define the shape of our faith.