Laicizing the Church

By Demi Prentiss, reprinted from Living God’s Mission.

For the church in the 21st century, this definition of “laicize” [see image] is missing the mark, What’s needed is a word that speaks of laity assuming their rightful place in the church, as the “first order“ – both historically and in terms of numbers. I’m searching for a term to describe the laos – the whole people of God – as a collaborative partnership between people who exercise their ministries in the world and people who focus their ministries within the institution that is the church. Because what I see as the future for Christianity world-wide is the laicization of the church – the establishment of “right order” to our orders of ministry: laity, bishops, priests, and deacons.

I’m not talking about kicking clergy out of the church, or making the church “secular” (whatever that might mean). Both laity and clergy are called to share in the leadership and governance of the church; the three orders of ordained leadership are valuable, alongside the lay order. Deacons, priests and bishops function as icons of the leadership a Beloved Community requires. They are windows through which we can see more clearly and deeply the roles that all Christians are called to play, nearly every day. All people, in their life and work, are called to

  • serve the community and bridge between the church and the world, as deacons do;
  • convene, bless, feed, teach and offer forgiveness, as priests do; and
  • oversee, exercise authority and hold the system accountable, as bishops do.

The three orders of clergy are important to the functioning of the church, but they are not the church, in and of themselves. As a matter of fact, in the early 21st century, among Christian denominations the ordained account for 0.8 percent of the people who are the church. If the laity abdicate their roles and leave the ordained to be the only recognized church leaders, we’ll work them to death.

I’m also not talking about turning all the church buildings into chic homes and trendy restaurants. The rise of the “nones” (who name their religious affiliation as “none”) and the uncertainties of post-pandemic culture have led many to speculate that shrinking Sunday attendance numbers are the death knell of the church. In many small towns, closed churches seem to outnumber functioning faith communities. “Old Church Bakery” is trending as a business name.

In the same way that the chant “Whose streets? Our streets!” focused the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps a similar chant might galvanize faith communities: “Whose church? God’s church!” May we all be people of God.

What I am calling for is celebrating the fact that the church is not a building but the Body of Christ. And we might consider recognizing that the model for our current adaptive challenge is not the first century – the beginnings of the church. More germane, as my friend Mark Dunwoody maintains, is the Dark Ages, the second half of the first millennium (about 500-1000 CE). Much like the early third millennium (2000 CE-present), that time was roiled with political unrest, uncontrolled plague, warring princes, and political instability.  During that time, the church stepped into the power void left by the collapse of the Roman Empire. The best among Christian leaders became the voice of the people, standing for the common good and in opposition to the excesses of royalty.

What might happen if, in this post-pandemic world, the laity steps into leadership of a vast number of smaller and more focused faith communities? What if we shifted away from today’s model serving 154 million believers in 380,000 churches, in the midst of a population of 328 million? What might we accomplish by seeking to become a church of committed groups of under 100 people? What if, more essential than declaring our religious affiliation, we sought to live the Way of Jesus and to welcome our neighbors into the work of creating Beloved Community? How might our church institutions seek to encourage the health of each faith community, regardless of size?

Whose church? God’s church! May we all be people of God.

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