In my discussions with congregational and diocesan leaders around the Church of late, I have noticed a shift in the conversation.
Faith leaders were already beginning to face the facts about their congregations before Covid: acknowledging that, at best, they are on a plateau and that, at worst, they are on a slow but slippery downward slope, not just in membership numbers, but also congregational vitality and engagement. This trend has been made even clearer and its pace accelerated by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Another shift is that fewer leaders are clinging to the old canard that there are “other ways to grow than in actual number,” recognizing that readiness to grow is a powerful indicator that talk of willingness to change is more than lip service.
These are healthy signs. Getting over our resistance to facing the reality of our condition is half the battle for the future of the Church. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (though it may really piss you off first).
Indeed, while I am hearing more acceptance of the need for growth and change, I’m not sure those same leaders have come to terms with what actual growth and change will cost them.
I say this because the next thing I hear is often a request for expert advice: solutions, techniques, fixes, specific changes that can be made to worship services, welcome programs, websites, or whatever. Implement once, take the heat, and be done with it…problem solved.
While I truly can understand this desire (even cosmetic changes to church traditions can inadvertently wound sacred cows and rile up the bovine protectors), this “call in the experts” impulse is ultimately self-defeating. Because what we are facing is a problem that experts can’t solve.
We are in the midst of a massive paradigm shift in what it means to be and to do Church. And as saying goes, “When a paradigm shifts, everyone goes to zero.”
When journeying through a paradigm shift there are no experts, only fellow learners. Since no one knows where the paths we tread will ultimately take us, we have to become pioneers. When we find ourselves in such a situation as this, we don’t need expert advice. Rather, what we need is to learn how to become ecclesiastical entrepreneurs.
What is an ecclesiastical entrepreneur?
To be effective ecclesiastical entrepreneurs we have to learn how to learn. We may have to hone in ourselves some skills and attitudes that we may not have had to exercise much in the past (or ever).
We need to learn to discern what God is up to in the world around us: to sniff out how the Holy Spirit is already at work in the communities in which our congregations live and move and have their being. We need to set aside our assumptions about how things are supposed to work and what we are supposed to do, and instead ask ourselves a lot more questions about why we exist and for what purpose God has planted us in our specific time and place.
Discernment in a time of great change requires of us high tolerance for ambiguity. Because we are still looking and listening through the filters of our old paradigm.
Which means we need to accept that God may call us to act before we are certain of what God is calling us to. And we also need to realize that if we wait for certainty before we act, the Holy Spirit may move on without us long before we are ready.
We need to be willing to dream big, start small, fail often, learn fast (especially from our failures), and repeat as necessary.
What we are going through is nothing less than the death of one way of being Church and the birthing of a new one. It would not be an exaggeration to say that what is going on in ourselves as faith leaders and the congregations we serve is akin to the old Kubler-Ross stages of dying.
And if this is so, we have already begun the journey of grief and are making good progress. We have made it through anger and denial, and have entered into bargaining. Our journey through our paradigm shift has come more than halfway.
The task that now lies ahead of us is to move faithfully through our depression about our circumstances in order to arrive at true acceptance. It is when we have come to a real sense of acceptance that we will know that we have made it to the other side.
And that will be a good place to be, because we know that if we allow God to walk with us through death, the result will be resurrection.