Three Thoughts on Rebuilding the Church
Early on in his journey toward God, St. Francis found himself near the small chapel of San Damiano (St. Damian), about a half mile south of Assisi. St. Bonaventure's Life of Francis says that San Damiano was in disrepair, "on account of its great age." First off, we should probably put "great age" in perspective. The original San Damiano probably dates to the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th Century, so by the time Francis comes upon it in 1205, it is 100, maybe 150, years old. That's certainly not nothing, but from the perspective of the history of the Christian church--even from the perspective of Francis's time--it is relatively recent.
Nevertheless, San Damiano was in disrepair by the time Francis arrives. We are conditioned, or at least I was conditioned, to think of our time as some sort of uniquely problematic period in the history of Christianity. Christianity is in decline, Millennials are leaving in droves, nothing is as good as it was back in the day, etc. There is this idea that there was a trend line of uninterrupted growth in Christian life (or, at least, growth with interregnums of barbarian invasion, or rebellious heretics of one sort or another) until THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION ruined everything. Heck, Rod Dreher wrote an entire book on that thesis. Christians, and American Christians particularly, are terrified of being left behind by the march of history. This fear is so pervasive that it is one of the few things that cuts across the chasm that divides progressive and conservative Christians.
San Damiano proves how shallow that analysis is. There were no wars, no barbarian invasions, no catastrophes to explain why San Damiano was left to decay. It was built, and then it was abandoned. It was a church that no longer was seen to serve any purpose, and so it was left to fall apart. Until, of course, St. Francis came to put it to some new purpose, one that the original builders could never have possibly foreseen.
Christianity is like that. If you seek permanence and stasis, to never have to face an end, then go look to Greek philosophy or transhumanism, because you are not going to find any of that in the message of Jesus. Jesus promises not the avoidance of death and decay, but resurrection out of that very death and decay into something new and wonderful. Christianity was about recycling before recycling was cool, and our unwillingness to rest in that and instead embrace the Chicken Little routine is an indictment on us and our faith. Rachel Held Evans said it well in her book Searching for Sunday:
"...Lately I've been wondering if a little death and resurrection might be just what the church needs right now, if maybe all this talk of waning numbers and shrinking influence means our empire-building days are over, and if maybe that's a good thing. Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It's certainly not something resurrection people worry about...As the shape of Christianity changes and our churches adapt to a new world, we have a choice: we can drive our hearses around bemoaning every augur of death, or we can trust that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead is busy making something new. As long as Christians are breaking the bread and pouring the wine, as long as we are anointing the sick and baptizing sinners, as long as we are preaching the Word and paying attention, the church lives, and Jesus says the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. We might as well trust him, since he knows a thing or two about the way out of the grave."
So, Francis finds himself inside the partially ruined chapel of San Damiano, and he hears a voice speaking from the crucifix. The San Damiano crucifix has become very famous--I have a reproduction on my wall. But it is worth taking a second to look at the San Damiano crucifix:
As the San Damiano cross became associated with Francis and the Franciscans in all of their manifold expressions, something that comes out of one line of tradition becomes reused and spread in a slightly new form to an entirely new set of folks. And this isn't the only example. Francis and the Franciscans spread two exceedingly popular devotions to the Western church--the manger scene (especially the creche) and the Stations of the Cross--both of which were practices that were common in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas that Francis brought back with him from his trip to the Middle East. And, then as now, the majority of Christians in the Holy Land were Eastern Christians.
Ideas and concepts that seemed isolated and marginalized snap back into central importance in a new context and in a new form. Two generations ago, Gregory of Nyssa's musing about the universal salvation of all people was seen as a bizarre sideline, resonating only with fringe elements of the Christian movement. Today, it is at the center of some of the most heated fights in the Christian world. In two more generations, I predict that the majority of Christians will believe in some version of Gregory's thesis. That's not unusual, and it is not a problem--that's just how it works. Christianity is "ever ancient and ever new" because, at its best, it has been about resorting and remixing from sources ancient and modern into a new synthesis.
We fight this. We fight this because are so in love with our lines. We love the idea of being able to classify everything (and everyone) into a clean taxonomy, so that every idea and practice can be sorted efficiently into the right bin. But the lines we draw are often very arbitrary, and almost always extremely tied to a particular time and a particular place. Lines that once seemed clear and utterly permanent can vanish in an instant, without any perceivable warning.
Defending our lines is like defending sandcastles at the beach. In the fight between sandcastles and the tide, the tide is undefeated--it eventually washes away every sandcastle. That's OK--we can just build another one in a slightly different spot in a slightly different way, hopefully learning something about building sandcastles from the previous one. The inexorable claiming of sandcastles by the tide is only a problem if we are wedded to one particular sandcastle, one particular way of being church. Sandcastles don't last because they are not supposed to last. But the sand is still there, still available to be formed into something new.
The voice that Francis hears from the crucifix tells him "Francis, go and repair my church which, as you see, is all in ruins!" In that charmingly literal way of his, Francis first assumes that God is particularly concerned with San Damiano chapel, and so he sets about gathering stones to fix the holes in the walls, beams to fix the roof, etc.
The rebuilding of the actual physical building of San Damiano is an important event in the story of the Franciscan movement. San Damiano became the home-base of St. Clare and her sisters, which is a critical part of the overall Franciscan story. Home bases are important. Places of worship are important.
But Francis came rather quickly to see his task in much broader terms than simply relating to a building. The "church" that the voice was referring to was the whole People of God, and Francis set off to reach that whole people. In time, Francis left Assisi, traveling to Rome and then to Egypt and the Holy Land. Francis's message literally spread to the whole world, eventually to places that Francis didn't even know existed.
In a time when everyone is worried about the future of Christianity, there is a strong temptation to take care of "things at home." And there is nothing wrong with doing the quiet, anonymous, often painstaking and thankless work of building up a local church or a local Christian community. In fact, it is is necessary. Again, the effort Francis spent to rebuild San Damiano was not wasted effort. But the work of Christian renewal necessarily spreads beyond the confines of our local situation if it represents authentic renewal. We don't build churches and form Christian communities for their own sake, but as platforms for transformation in Christ. A Christianity, of whatever political or theological orientation, that is concerned mostly with its own numbers and its own success is not really an authentic Christianity. We need to stop worrying so much about headcount and the state of our buildings.
We also need to stop worrying about success, about whether we have any "deliverables" to show to some hypothetical review board. Much of what Francis did was, from a "deliverables" metric, a failure and a waste of time. He spent most of his ministry wandering around Italy. His big overseas project--going to Egypt to mediate between Christians and Muslims fighting in the Crusades, was an abject failure. His followers were constantly squabbling. Francis provides little in the way of "deliverables" to show for his efforts. And none of that matters one iota, because his wandering and his failures still serve as an inspiration and a locus for others seeking to find God, and so in an ultimate sense his ministry was a success.
No one, not one of us, knows where the church is going to go in the next 50 or 100 years. All we can do right now is to listen for the voice of God and to love the Lord and our neighbor as best we can. That will likely involve replacing some bricks in our local church, and it will likely involve some venturing out into the broader world. The mix of those two things, and how exactly that is or should play out will be unique to each of us and likely not perfectly clear at any particular point. Surely we will get it wrong some times. But, at the end of the day, I am convinced all God wants of us is to listen and to love. That's all we are being asked to do; that's all we are ever asked to do. If we do that, God will make something of it. God always does.