If you ever visit San Antonio, I recommend that you stroll along the Riverwalk which is a park that winds and loops along the river and is lined with gardens, restaurants and shops. Once you have done that, you should go see the old Spanish colonial Missions (which includes the famous Alamo). I lived in Texas for over a decade before I ever heard of the Missions, much less visited them. Shame on me! But when I did finally visit them, I was impressed at how well they have been preserved and what they can still teach us.
While a modern version of the missions won’t look or operate exactly the way the historic models here in Texas did, I suspect congregations that will still be around in 2050 will look more like the missions of the 1850s than American churches of the 1950s.
The Missions and their Mission
What are the Missions? Well, they are the historic Catholic communities (communes?) that gave rise to several modern cities or towns in Texas, such as San Antonio. The highlights of the Missions are the beautiful chapels that are still standing centuries after being built. But what I found more interesting was learning that the missions were not merely centers of worship; they were communities that provided work, food, and shelter for those living in danger on the prairie. In fact, the missions were named as such precisely because they were communities engaged in the mission of converting the masses and incorporating them into the Body of Christ.
Now, I am not Roman Catholic, so for all of my Protestant friends who want to dismiss the work of the missions because it was priests doing the work, well, it’s a free country. But for the missiological nature of this essay, I am putting those differences aside. Besides, Protestants have a lot more in common with 19th century Catholics than 21st century Catholics.
With that caveat out of the way, we can ask what went on at these missions? Well, all of life, essentially. Worship, prayer, food cultivation, civic life, protection from tribal warfare, the building of homes, culture making (music, storytelling, the rearing of children). Christianity in the isolated frontiers of the New World consisted of followers of Christ demonstrating a comprehensive way of living in the world. The chapel was not segregated from daily life, but was an integral part of it. And the “stuff of life” was raised and cultivated in the shadow of the chapel, and was overseen by the priest who assumed the role of guiding these important activities in every area of life.
Many, if not most of the inhabitants of the missions were Native Americans who converted to Christianity. Most of whom were seeking refuge from the warfare that had defined their lives for decades. In the missions, these Native Americans found a hard way of life in many respects, but also a protected community and a decided lack of warfare. They were grateful to grow food and rear children in peace, even if that meant leaving their tribal ways behind.
But make no mistake, those natives converted to Christianity. The work of the missions in colonial times was not the kind of work the Church calls “missional” today, which usually involves building schools, water wells, and offering medical care without any expectation of conversion. While Protestants today may scoff at the notion of a sacerdotal priesthood, the priests at that time demanded absolute conversion to Catholicism. In other words, the missions were not ecumenical pow-wows (pardon the pun), enjoying the protection of the mission meant becoming a part of and dedicated one’s life and efforts to the "mission" (both physically and spiritually).
Where are the Missions Today?
Today, these kind of conversions has received some bad press, albeit 200 years too late. Recently, the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in California was vandalized in the year of unrest, 2020, and their statue of Saint Junipero was removed in anticipation of its expected defacement. Like the missions in San Antonio, San Juan Capistrano was a Spanish mission that converted untold hundreds to Christianity. That kind of work was once celebrated, but now is seen as insensitive, hostile, and colonizing. Alas.
Fast forward to 2023. Compared to these historic missions, how does the church interact with the world today? How is it viewed? In contrast to the communal aspect of the older missions, congregational and spiritual life today is almost wholly private. Almost everything about modern Christianity has turned inward, as today Christians are more likely to apologize for their faith than promote it. Congregations are quaint - but dying - facets of neighborhood life. The buildings themselves reflect the golden era of that congregation and of Christianity at large. The huge Neo-Gothic edifices located in the heart of small towns or suburbs are barely surviving with only a faithful remnant of members who have no clue how to reach out to their neighbors who are, more often than not, happy to be left alone. Or, alternatively, there are quickly-built, mass-produced sanctuaries built in the 1960’s which are trapped in time, somewhere between Classicism and Post-Modernism.
In sum, the prevailing mindset today is that Christianity is for the salvation of a person’s soul, not the vehicle of dominion in any particular place. Christianity might influence how we vote, but then again we all know we aren’t supposed to talk about religion or politics, so how would anyone know?
Building a Mission by Moving Forward to the Past
Throughout the 1950s, Christian denominations boomed. Many of the churches built in that decade and in the years afterwards are now empty and being sold off or converted into a brewery. So here is my very simple proposal: if congregations want to survive, they will have to give up on the 1950s Golden Age model and embrace the 1850s (or even the 1750s) model. Congregations today, while they still can, need to become robust community participants just like the missions of old. Failure to do so in the next decade will likely spell disaster for any congregation.
To put it simply: it would be far better for the congregation to start its own brewery rather than to become one.
What might this change look like? Well, keep in mind every congregation is unique, with its own context, spiritual gifts, and assets. However, here is an example of what our congregation has done over the past decade:
- We renovated our commercial kitchens and got them permitted so we could lease them out to food manufacturers, caterers, etc.
- We leased out our parsonage to several non-profit businesses as I, the pastor, was able to purchase a home in town.
- We started a preschool.
- We partner with another church that needed sanctuary and Sunday school space.
- We host local dance groups, an HOA, ethnic club meetings/events, and even weddings and funerals under the right circumstances.
In the future, I’d like to pursue a community garden, offer lessons in self-sufficiency, and perhaps even raising chickens on our campus. Though this may never come to pass, I can imagine a beautiful image of our entire front yard as an orchard, garden, and chicken coop.
What would we do with all of that food grown in our gardens? Hard to say. We could have our members harvest and preserve it; give it to the hungry or allow them to glean it themselves; use it to feed the chickens and enjoy the eggs. The current situation is that by incubating businesses, having two congregations on our campus, hosting community groups, and (possibly) using our property to grow and preserve food, we are looking more like an 1850s mission than a 1950s social club.
Lastly, I have neglected perhaps the biggest opportunity of all for the church: education. As institutions continue to crumble around us, none have proven more derelict and perverted than our public schools. Churches can and should find ways to fill the gap. For example, start a preschool; host a homeschool co-op or classical school; offer lessons in how to “degree hack;” support Christian colleges and universities, even the unaccredited ones; start an underground seminary; etc., etc.
Over the decades, I have noticed an occasional lurch towards the aesthetics of the past; the Taizé Christian community in France comes to mind. Perhaps that community was a harbinger of the lurch we actually need to be making, which is not just towards the aesthetics of the past, but the mission of the past. The church of 2050 cannot be the private, personalized place of prayer that it was able to be in the 1950s. Those days are over! So my advice as a Christian and a pastor is to find a way to become a place of mission while you still can.
Photo Credit: travelawaits. com