03/07/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated May 07, 2013

Toward Churches In the Green: Postmodern, Post-Christian Possibilities for Faith in the Future

Run a few web searches for "green church" and you'll find various churches "on the green" (that is, on the city green, as in New Haven or Boston) or discussions about how to make churches (the buildings and the people) more environmentally responsible. Even though many people in the big tent of the sustainability movement use the word "green" as a synonym for "sustainable," it seems harder to find churches with specific missions around sustainability that use green language in their public communications or community statements.

Searching for "sustainable church" brings me a little closer to churches that have sustainability as a mission and orienting principle. Christ Church of Berkeley, for example, includes the word in their mission statement and defines it thusly:

"We encourage people to live according to principles of economic, social, and environmental justice on an individual and communal level. We believe that our true theological and personal commitments are fleshed out in the way we spend our money and use our resources in both our long-term decisions and our daily routines."

On their website, Berkley also introduces the steps they are taking toward being more green with helpful explanations and an appropriately humble approach to what is, after all, a rather prophetic charge.

As Christians seek to plant new faith communities in the generative contexts of urban spaces and post-Christendom, should sustainability be a founding theological principle, and if so, what might it look like? How would decisions for sustainability in the most far-reaching sense become incarnate in our space?

What might a truly sustainable church (a "church in the green") look like? By sustainable, I don't mean, of course, what people usually mean when they say "self-sustaining." I'm talking about a radically intentional effort.

A few thoughts:

  • Sharing space and fellowship with existing congregations in existing buildings.
  • Staying very local.
  • Understanding that arts and music are not means to an end but can be a a means to their own implicit, mystic end (and beginning).
  • Using liturgy, whatever that means for given communities. It might mean using ancient forms or making new ones. I think it means using whatever comes naturally.

One night I had a dream that I went to a church and Leonard Cohen was the pastor. Instead of a sermon, he sang "Suzanne" and the congregation started singing along, getting some of the words right, sometimes getting them wrong, but singing with a sense of eschatological celebration. Cohen looked about 50, his age around the release of "Hallelujah." He wore a green suit with a white shirt and green tie. Clearly, my subconscious is trying to work out what I mean about art not being a means to any one didactic, narrated end and about worship or fellowship or reflection being about the kairos of art, sacrament, song and the being of community, of being in the green together.

What if we add "open source" and "crowd-sourced" to our definitions of green and sustainable? Imagine something like this:

People get together each week in some reclaimed space or free space in their neighborhood. There may be no pastor in the tradition sense, though there is always an "Admin" or some similar open source analogue, and this role may or may not rotate. Each week, the liturgy (literally, "the work of the people": the readings, the music, the things that are shared and said, the prayers, everything) emerge from whatever is brought by the gathered. Some people bring things intentionally, things they've written beforehand or worked on for a while. Other people write poems and prayers or make art or music that is shared in response to what's been going on in real time. The music is done by whoever brings instruments or songs. Communion is shared every week, and the elements are whatever people bring (remembering gluten-free and non-alcoholic options). You don't come expecting to be talked to but to converse. You don't come to hear one or two people's opinions but to build an offering. You come to be and live, together.

It seems wise at this point to say some things about the New Testament concept of orderly worship. I'll use Paul's conflicting teachings on the role of women in leadership to suggest that his stress on order was, like his varied teachings on gender roles, clearly occasional. In case it's unclear (and I hope it isn't!), I don't raise the issue to suggest for even a second that there's something unsuitable about female leaders or pastors in our communities.

It seems to me that when Paul stresses the importance of order to New Testament churches, he's very concerned with making sure Christians understand that the freedom they have found in the living Christ is never license for them to scandalize their neighbors for scandal's sake. This is why in his letter to the Romans, for example, Paul lauds the leadership of the female apostle Junia, but in his letter to Corinth, Paul instructs that community that women aren't even to speak in their worship gatherings. Certainly, we've seen churches and denominations split over this issue and other issues of power, control, and access. If Paul really means that there is no slave or free or Greek or Jew or male or female in Christ, why does he tell slaves to be good slaves and Corinthian women to be quiet? As much as I hate this duality, I think I hate the way it's been misused and is being misused in modern churches even more. And while I wish that Paul would have chosen a radical spiritual politics of freedom over what I'm sure he viewed as prudence, there's a part of me that understands his provisional anxiety. I understand that the pastoral epistles were meant to be occasional. Whether or not they are compromise is a different, valid question, one that raises other valid questions (like "is there any indication that Paul believed that while writing specific, occasional letters to real communities, he was also writing our Scripture?). In any case, they are specific instructions to specific churches for specific reasons that do not match up exactly (or in some cases, even very closely) with what a living God continues to say to far flung places over thousands of years.

So, yes, to a culture that worships order, Paul says be ye orderly so that your brothers and sisters who don't understand God the way you do won't reject your faith on account of your radical new social vision. He's so concerned that non-Christians hear, clearly, a certain theological message, he'd rather that the Christians he's addressing not confuse things by living out in public the things they probably understood God was saying about their worth and rights as God's children in Christ. Would I rather that the theological message radical freedom and radical justice were as important to Paul as his other doctrinal concerns? Absolutely. I wish he had said things to Corinth, and I consistently reject arguments for subservient roles for women based on certain aspects of Paul's teaching. But we also need to think about why he said the things he said, and whether or not we are free to hear God saying to us now whatever it is that God will say. (I think we are).

Some segments of our culture still value a particular definition of order that would render an open, crowd-sourced church like the one I'm describing abysmally chaotic. Others feel differently. Is Wikipedia chaos? On one definition, sure. But it's also free as in free code and free as in free hot wings, and it's powerful for both of these freedoms. It's a self-correcting community that's not always right but strives to be better. What it is and what it becomes directly depend on what people bring to it. It's free to use and most people aren't paid to work on it. It's not very different from what we say we believe about church in the first place. And the open source/crowd-sourced church has something more secular examples of emergence don't require and do alright, in practical senses, without: a presumption about the presence and direction of Holy in its midst. Isn't that the stated point of anything that's ever called itself "church"?

Open source is an ethos, and crowd-sourcing is one of the most compelling possibilities for sustainability (a related ethos) we've developed. For some, church in this model is untenable. For others, church without these values and the freedom to pursue them isn't worth the time its institutional sustenance requires or the damning tension of allegiance to a relic (the Bible when read apart from context) and the pursuit of a God you believe is still living and perhaps even still speaking.