An Emboldening Thought
So what if all the decline our congregations and denominations have experienced in recent decades has little to do with a failure of leadership (what congregational leaders fear) or changes in theological or political stances (what more conservative church leaders assert) or a degenerate or disinterested generation of believers (what people in the pew too often feel) or with any of the other things we usually attribute it to. What if the decline is simply the result of a massive cultural shift? That is, what if we now live in a world where the emerging generation a) has tons of options for ways to think about and make sense of their lives, b) has way less time for things that don’t feel purposeful or worthwhile, and c) (and as a result of a and b) just don’t do things because their parents did but instead only commit to things that make a tangible difference in the world, both theirs and the world around them?
I guess another way of putting this is, what if our congregations are set up – in terms of things like “membership” and “pledges” and church council committees, and “new member” classes and “friendship pads” and scripted worship services filled with sixteenth-century music – to respond to the needs of those who came of age in the fifties, sixties, and seventies but have little to offer millennials? In other words, what if the way we do church just doesn’t make much sense to the youngest third of our population? What then?
I find this to be a terrifying thought. Mostly because I think it might be true….
But I also find that to be an incredibly freeing thought. Because it means, in part…
that we don’t have to do things the same way;
that we don’t have to judge ourselves by the practices and patterns of previous generations;
that we don’t have to keep pretending that we’ve got everything under control when deep down we feel like the world, or at least the church, is falling apart;
that we are free to experiment, to risk, even to play; and
that as with the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages we must rely again on God’s Spirit and grace, rather than our accomplishments or organizations, to lead us forward.
What’s nerve-wracking is that it can feel, at times, like we don’t know how to respond faithfully to the challenges of this age. (Because at times we don’t!) But when we admit that, we can stop faking it or fretting about it and get to work, confident of the power of the Spirit to continue revealing to us all truth. I mean, goodness gracious, isn’t that the promise of the Spirit Jesus makes his disciples when they were pretty sure the world was coming to an end because he was leaving them for a time? (John 16:13).
One thing we can’t do, however – and it’s as natural as it is understandable – is to pit generations against each other. I know a lot of people who have been well served by the patterns and practices of our congregational life, who find them meaningful and important, and who for this reason value the way we do things now and are not inclined to change them for change’s sake. (And more times than not I find myself in just that boat.) But I haven’t met anyone yet who is unwilling to consider experimenting with new practices in order to reach some of those we love but who are not in church with the good news of God’s love.
It’s not that the way “we have always done things” (which of course isn’t the way we’ve always done it but just what we have experienced) is wrong. It’s that the group of people who seem best served by those patterns seems only to be shrinking, while the group of people who are not touched by our current practices seems only to be growing.
Similarly, the question before us isn’t really about the what – a more conversational style of preaching, different hymns, a less-scripted and more participatory form of worship, different ways of establishing Christian community, or whatever. The question before us is why – because there are people we love who are not here – our children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors – who we hope will experience God’s life-changing love. And so we are willing to take risks and experiment — and you can’t experiment without experiencing some failure — in order to share Christ’s love with others.
As I contemplate more deeply this thought that is simultaneously both terrifying and emboldening, I am confident of two things. 1) I believe that none of us, truth be told, knows the best way to bear witness to the Gospel in this day and age. Some things continue to work well, some may be adapted, some new ways need to be found…and not one of us knows quite yet what all that will look like. 2) But I also believe that God has blessed this generation of disciples – including you who are reading this post! – with sufficient creativity, courage, and faith to walk forward together, trusting God’s guidance, until we discover new ways of being and acting in the world that witness to the God we know in Christ. This is not an easy road, but it is the road that God has laid out before us and promised to accompany us upon.
Which is perhaps why my favorite prayer these days is the traditional and familiar one connected with Matins that bolsters my courage to enter this brave new world with each of you: Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.