Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hybrid Mission and Ministry

Through a long and somewhat trying series of events, I am now the proud owner of a 2002 Toyota Prius and thus a new member of the club of hybrid car drivers. Hybrids, for those unaware, use both an electric motor (that often functions as a generator) and a gasoline motor to provide power to get one down the road. The interesting thing is that when going downhill, slowing down, or turning, the kinetic energy that ordinarily would be lost to heat through the breaks or otherwise discarded is instead routed to the motor/generator to recharge the battery. What that means is that the car never really coasts since it is constantly either drawing power from motion or contibuting power to it. After driving it for almost a week, my initial thought was "Why don't all cars work this way?" Given that most of the kinetic energy of a car, much less the heat from internal combustion, is exhausted or otherwise wasted, it would seem a total no-brainer that this is the future of automobiles.

At the same time, as a part of the aforementioned series of events, I had occasion to speak with one of my colleagues about the current state of affairs in both our diocese and the wider church. It seemed to both of us that we were entering what, upon later reflection, I would call a "hybrid" time of mission and minsitry in the institutional church. No longer were the structures that had been built up during the last forty years (coincidentially my current age!) sufficiant to facilitate the mission and minsitry in the current environment. In fact, some of those same structures that were built to protect the institution were instead choking the life out of it! Mission and minsitry today is done much more through a network of often local relationships than it is done through I tightly controlled program or a hierarchical system. While there is a need for accountability, there is also the need for flexibility.

Yesterday I caught an episode of Fresh Air that talked about the way in which the government has rewarded farm consolidation and articficially supported the growing of crops that virtually required fossil-fuel based pesticides and long distance transportation (obviously using fossil fuels). Again, this system had developed over the last 40 years. The guest advocated the "solarization of food" in which farmers once again grow a variety of crops, practice crop rotation, and that supply lines by shortened so that crops were eaten closer to where they are grown. One example he gave was that chickens from the United States are shipped to China to be processed, then shipped back to the United States for sale! This is because it is cheaper to ship them there for processing and ship them back than it is to pay labor costs in the United States. That is proving to be less and less the case as fuel prices increase.

I have often thought of the church as a battleship--hard to turn but very strong, occasionally intimidating if you are on the outside but very safe if you are on the inside. However, we live in a world that is much more geared to smaller, more agile craft like speedboats or patrol boats. There is a reason that the Navy no longer makes battleships--they have outlived their usefulness. In the same way, perhaps we need to look hard at our structures, our canons, and even our assumptions about how the institutional church should function (and often does, in spite of the official rules) and what modifications we could make in the structures to accomodate and encourage a less hierarchical, more localized, and less travel-centered. I don't really have any specific proposals for this, but I'm wondering if there is a "Why don't all churches work this way?" question to be asked.

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