If they build it, they will come

by Mark Safstrom

If they build it, they will come

“Churchmanship” appeared in the 1600s in the Church of England as a word indicating a strong supporter of the church as an institution. A churchman weighs tradition heavily, but is neither “high” nor “low,” and may be progressive, but not necessarily. Churchmanship has also been used in other denominational contexts and within Pietism to mean a builder of church institutions or a pillar of Christian community and congregational life. When it includes laypeople, churchmanship has a congregational, democratic ring to it.

What first comes to mind for me is the World War II generation, namely my grandparents and their pals. Maybe your parents, grandparents, or you yourself match this description: dedicated deacons and deaconesses, church chairs and committee members, Sunday school teachers, organists and choir members, sextons, conference superintendents, and missionaries. If your kids have ever asked you “why are we always the last ones to leave church?” – then you might be a churchman!

For me churchmanship is positive, and I use it with reverence. The word carries the aroma of church coffee, soup kitchens, and Roberts Rules of Order. Yet, the “greatest generation” can be hard to live up to. Furthermore, this may not be positive for people who find fault with institutions for not reacting fast enough to abuses, or being resistant to reform. It may sound quaint at best, or be synonymous with patriarchal exclusivity. A gender-neutral alternative is elusive.

“Churchwomanship” has been in use for over a century at least, but nevertheless hasn’t succeeded like its masculine counterpart. And it is, perhaps, only one degree away in many people’s minds from the mid-1980s Saturday Night Live sketch of Dana Carvey as “The Church Lady.” This is the prim and proper, patronizing and judgmental church person who undercuts others with ironic criticism (“We love Jesus more than anybody, don’t we”). Hilarious to be sure, it is sobering to reflect on the reasons why the joke works. The Church Lady is a critique of church people generally, men or women, who have bought in completely to the church as an institution, and in defending it, become excellent at keeping others out.

Identifying good churchmanship requires differentiating between the defense of institutions as such, versus the preservation of a community and its shared values. The democratic and congregational values behind good churchmanship, I would say, are indispensable. So is a reasoned examination of church polity and ecclesiology. How the body of Christ functions together, includes and excludes, can be as important as discerning “what the Bible says.” Ecclesiology sometimes seems absent in how many Christians deal with perceived challenges from mainstream culture. Good churchmanship is not anti-institutional, either. Christian community really can’t exist (for long) without institutions, however romantic one might be in critiquing “organized religion.”

Good churchmanship is the ethos that makes congregations happen, thrive, and grow. It is the self-sacrificial idea that I as an individual member belong, that my contributions of time, talent, and treasure are necessary, that when I am absent and don’t participate, something is missing. And that people miss me! And that we miss you!

The model of some mega-churches of the last century placed great emphasis on the idea that if the church provided fresh programming and big, new buildings, people would come – “If you build it, they will come,” to borrow from the film “Field of Dreams.” This was to be different from the church model of previous generations, with their overly taxing business meetings, tithing, and volunteering. This cultural shift can be linked to the fact that younger generations are simply not “joiners,” and the category “none” has increased in polls about religious affiliation.

Lack of participation is not just a concern for churches. Some educators and community organizers wondering how to engage their students and constituents in an individualistic age have responded by shifting the focus to programs that are “student-centered” and “community-supported.” This reflects that idea that “if they build it, they will come.”

This is what good churchmanship always was. The simple wisdom in the historic congregational movements within Christianity was that if more people have a part to play in an event or project, more people will show up. This can happen when more people are consulted, included, and are given the responsibility and opportunity to serve.

This idea links several of the articles in this issue. If the church is to primarily be a community and movement, then focused attention is necessary on the behavior and activities that make this possible, as well as what can get in the way. The ongoing discussion about the ecclesiology of the Evangelical Covenant Church continues in reflections by Dan Collison, Randall Wilkens, and G. Timothy Johnson. In seeking the prayerful support of her congregation as she begins service as president of North Park University, Mary Surridge’s reflections remind us that church-affiliated colleges rely on the patient, faithful support of the wider church. David Bjorlin identifies some of the ways that our singing may increase mutual trust within the congregation. And a new history book written by Bryce and Bonnie Nelson celebrates several generations of people who built vibrant camping ministries in the Pacific Northwest.

A special note of congratulation is due to Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola (SVF, Vättern College) on its 100th anniversary. Included in this issue are two interviews with SVF educators, Gunnar Hallingberg and Ove Gotting, as well as a short history of the beginnings of SVF’s exchange program with North Park, by Charles Peterson.

Guds frid – God’s peace