Window to a Lost World
An elder member of our church community discovered a booklet produced by our congregation over 40 years ago. The booklet is a window into a time and place that is no more. It depicts a young, energetic congregation putting its best foot forward to present itself to potential members in a nominal Christian culture.
I am the age of many of those who were children in those pictures, and their parents in the pictures are either well into their 70s or 80s or have passed away. I know many of their stories, although I can’t recognize all of the faces. None of them knew what the next 40 years would bring.
Some of the appeals of the brochure continue to be safe and assumed attractions for the church and culture today. The brochure intentionally depicts three families, one of European descent, one of African Americans, and the third Asian. It emphasizes positive community and service.
Some of the other assumed attractional appeals like allegiance to the Bible and the place of worship would in church marketing today be seen as specifically appealing to Christians rather than the general population. The presentation looks positively sleepy compared to the high energy mega church websites or new age competitors attempting to attract contemporary religious consumers.
The Bible and Christian worship no longer hold the same position of privilege in our shared cultural value system. Growing a congregation in many of our communities takes more than simply energizing dormant or nominal believers. Our context has changed.
I believe the mood of the CRCNA today is anxious. The world has changed dramatically over the last 40 years and the pace of change is accelerating rather than declining. Ross Douthat notes that changes in our sexual ethic gets all of the attention, but far more things have changed while we were focusing on sex. (Read Douthat’s book Bad Religion.)
I recently listened to an online discussion as to whether the CRCNA in the last 20 years has lost more people because it’s not conservative enough or because it’s not liberal enough. I’d argue that the presence of the entire framework through which we’ve interpreted the value of the gospel has changed and in many ways we need to work to understand the gospel anew within our present cultural-values framework.
While I may understand the project in rather esoteric language, most of us are focusing on a myriad of very practical things. Will old ways of understanding the world continue to motivate people’s behaviors sufficiently to support cherished institutional forms and structures? Will the fabric of CRCNA traditions and institutions that we’ve constructed continue to be sustainable?
The CRCNA is conducting listening meetings in different geographical locations. For the most part only the most loyal, the most committed, the most anxious of our community will come out to be heard. Will this sample offer helpful information to help chart the future? Tough to say. Listening, however, is one of the most helpful ways to approach almost anything.
Do Not Worry
One of Jesus’ clearest commands was to not worry. The command concerns “what you will eat and what you will wear.” It is followed by “seek first the kingdom of God” which I think sanctions a certain amount of holy concern. Perhaps if we resist the temptation to be anxious about our denominational eating and wearing and focus more instead on kingdom seeking we can move in the direction Jesus was pointing.
Although particular cultural understandings of the gospel change over time, the multi-layered application of its power usually opens up new glimpses of how it saves us sometimes before we fully understood our peril. Christianity more than any other world religion has demonstrated its capacity to transcend and overcome cultural obstacles. This kind of “same but different” experience can be seen in my church’s old brochure. A lot has surely changed, and more will change, but it is also recognizable.
“I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the end of the night”
An unfortunate target for our anxiety is the search for a new Executive Director. The blank page of a vacancy invites the imagination to indulge in rescue fantasies that will almost certainly disappoint.
Part of the matrix for the way forward will certainly involve leadership. It always does. The leadership we need will come from a variety of places, some of them surprising. It is almost always true that the most valuable leadership is recognized over time, not in the moment.
We should pray for the process of selecting a new Executive Director while we pray for each other. We should keep our expectations for that leader and the position in check. By virtue of the fact that the new Executive Director will certainly be none of us (minus one), all of us (minus one) will disagree with a variety of his or her decisions. The new Executive Director will undoubtedly have to make some decisions that he has to hold his nose for and others that she will regret or will keep her up at night after its made. The position is like that.
Because none of us (minus one) will be the new Executive Director, we should all ponder how to lead from the places we currently occupy. How do my words and how does my influence help us to re-appropriate the gospel for our context? How does the way we relate to one another help build and not tear down this fragile community? How can we encourage and not discourage faithful endurance in a time and place where everything feels like it’s up for grabs?
The Christian church already has its hero. All others who want to lead must learn how to serve with him.