Unbound by Convention

In mid-December, the outdoor clothing company Patagonia announced that it would be closing all its stores, warehouses, and offices from Christmas through New Year’s Day. For a company that does over $220 million in annual sales, a week off is no small thing.

So, why do it? Patagonia offered the following explanation on its website:

At Patagonia, we do our best to not be bound by convention and to look out for people and the planet.

Shutting its doors for a week was not a marketing stunt. It was a manifestation of who Patagonia is and what it strives to do as a company. In order to value its people and the protection of the planet, Patagonia is willing to play by a different set of rules, to swim against the stream of what’s expected from good, profitable, bottom-line-driven businesses in America. Whether you like their clothing or not, you’ve got to give it up to Patagonia for their willingness to be unconventional.

One of the pressing questions facing us today is whether the church that will emerge on the other side of the pandemic will have the courage to “not be bound by convention.” Will the church default back to its standard programming and liturgies? Will we remain tethered to metrics for assessing church vitality that come from the 1960s? Will we continue to sacrifice at the altar of institutional maintenance, offering up our polite sermons, new org charts, and remodeled websites with the hopes that they might buy us 10, maybe 20 more years of relevance?

Choosing to be unbound by convention isn’t easy and might feel scary as hell. It certainly will result in criticism. It absolutely will put you face to face with uncertainty. At some point, you will definitely utter the phrase, “seminary didn’t prepare me for this.” I hear you – and I’ve been there.

But what if we don’t? What if we remain bound to convention? I think a lot is at stake.

For one, we will forfeit something vital about Jesus’ ministry. Virtually everything Jesus did was unconventional with respect to the established religious, social, and political systems of his day. He talked with sinners, ate with tax collectors, lived among the poor, questioned Pharisees, critiqued the Temple, disregarded social hierarchies, challenged Caesar, reinterpreted Scripture, and told parables of a kingdom to come that would radically differ from the kingdom at hand. If we really want to WWJD, then the best first step is to unbind ourselves from conventional approaches to ministry.

Second, we will risk losing a chance to embody pre-Constantinian spirituality. Before Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th c., the church was a marginal, scrapy, subversive, counter-cultural movement. It hadn’t yet lost its prophetic voice. It hadn’t yet been domesticated by the promise of political alignment and financial stability. It hadn’t yet been convinced that social acceptance was more valuable than constructive cultural critique. It just might be that reclaiming pre-Constantinian spirituality is the pathway back to authenticity and relevance in our work.

Third, if the church remains steadfastly conventional we will turn our backs on a core tenet of the Reformation: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – roughly translated, “the church reformed and always being reformed.” What this motto articulates is that the forms and expressions of the church were never meant to be static or settled no matter how revered they are by the faithful or how established they are in our traditions. The Reformation, in other words, isn’t a past event carried out by folks like Calvin and Luther; rather, it is the vocational calling of every church leader, regardless of denomination, in the here and now.

The task ahead of us is huge. Being unbound by convention will take uncommon courage and profound creativity. It might require you to rethink the ways you live out your vocation. It might challenge you to step up and speak out in ways you’ve never done before. But take heart. As the Gospels remind us, little acts of unconventionality can transform the world.

1 Comment
  • Juana Jordan
    Posted at 10:51h, 25 January Reply

    A great read! I shared with another clergysister of mine and we both agree these are great questions and challenge to the church!
    May we who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Thank you!

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