I recently listened to a radio interview with an author named Chuck Klosterman who has written a book entitled “But What if We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.” He maintains that every generation unconsciously assumes that its particular view of reality will continue in perpetuity. But, of course, time passes and ideas shift. Opinions invert. “What once seemed reasonable eventually becomes absurd, replaced by modern perspectives that feel even more irrefutable and secure—until, of course, they don’t.” His book invites us to visualize the contemporary world as it might appear to those who will perceive it from the future, as being a part of the past.
So, how do you think our successors in the life of our synod will perceive us from the vantage point of, let’s say, fifty years hence?
I think they will see what many of us are seeing. They will see that membership levels, worship attendance and volunteer participation rates are all down. Sunday school and confirmation classes are a fraction of the size they used to be. Congregations are struggling to fairly compensate their paid staff and making cuts. Buildings are deteriorating due to deferred or overdue maintenance. They will see a church where fewer financial resources are being shared with regional and national expressions of the church that, in turn, are reducing staff and programs at about the same rate that the pleas for help from the grass roots are increasing!
They will see an institution that is still organized on pretty much the same model that it effectively developed 60 years ago to respond to a particular set of massive social changes in post-war North America but somehow got stuck and largely failed to effectively adapt to the changes that came in rapid succession through the final decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st.
What they will see, and what many of us are seeing, is a church that needs to be liberated and set free from a slavish bondage to a world view that is no longer working for us. They will see a church that continues to do the things in pretty much the same way as we’ve always done them, and yet expects to have different results.
This, of course, is the classic, albeit clichéd, definition of insanity. The consequences of continuing on this course are perilous and may, in fact, be preventing us from fulfilling the big picture ministry agenda that we feel called to embrace and engage in this 2016 context. The LWF Reformation themes call us to boldly engage God’s overarching mission to love, save and reconcile the world! They call us to climb aboard for the voyage of a lifetime. But we don’t have a lot of time and energy to engage and support that kind of a mission, that kind of a voyage, when all of our time and energy is directed toward patching leaks and mending holes in a ship whose hull is long past the need for overhaul.
We need to stop consuming our accumulated assets by maintaining institutions, church buildings and individual ministries that have become redundant in their present form. We’re maintaining and propping up too many structures in support of too few ministries. And while I understand the desire to honour and preserve the gifts that have been entrusted to us by our forbearers; we actually end up doing quite the opposite when we become the sole recipients of their benefit or squander them. That’s not faithful stewardship and it’s no way to experience joy in ministry.
Many of our congregations need to give very serious consideration to transitioning into a new life through mergers while they yet have the capacity to bring something with them to a new partnership.
Some of our Ministry Areas are ideally positioned to establish broader partnerships with shared ministry programmes and shared staffing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our rostered leaders, most who work in relative isolation, could be partnered in ministry teams? Think of the potential for increased creativity, expanded breadth of skill and mutual support!
Others of our congregations would benefit from getting out of the aging church structures that claim too much of our time, energy and financial resources. Could you imagine the possibilities of how those gifts might be liberated and deployed once the congregation is freed from the property management business?
And yes, some of our congregations need to bring their ministries to a gracious and faith inspired conclusion while they yet have the opportunity to entrust a legacy to the care of their wider church family. There is no shame in this. For heaven’s sake! We are in the dying and rising business! Why are we so averse to experiencing such necessary transitions in our institutional life together?
But here’s the good news! We have options in how we engage this work. We don’t have to keep doing things the way we think we’ve always done them. Church history and the contemporary witness of the global church show us that there is no limit to the ways in which we can organize ourselves to do the work of ministry. We have the capacity to envision and live into an alternate future and we have an abundance of resources with which to do it. We are the richest Christians ever to live on planet earth and yet we strangely persist in seeing the life of church through the lens of scarcity? Could it be that the lens needs to be replaced?