In my discussions with congregational and diocesan leaders around the Church of late, I have noticed a shift in the conversation.
More and more leaders are beginning to face the facts about their congregations. More are beginning to acknowledge 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 congregational vitality and engagement. Another positive shift is that fewer 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.”
But apparently, Jesus forgot to add, “but first it will really piss you off…” Indeed, while I hear 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. 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. And while I can understand this desire (even cosmetic changes to church traditions can inadvertently wound sacred cows and wind up their 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 are on will ultimately take us, all of us are pioneers. When we find ourselves in such a situation, we don’t need expert advice. Rather, what we need is to learn how to be ecclesiastical entrepreneurs.
What is an ecclesiastical entrepreneur?
To be effective ecclesiastical entrepreneur we have to learn how to learn and we may have to hone some qualities that we may not have had to exercise much in the past. 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 higher tolerance for ambiguity. Because we are still looking and listening through the filters of our old paradigm, we need to accept that God may call us to act before we are certain of what God wants, and 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.
Since what we are going through is, in effect, the death of one way of being Church and birthing of a new way, perhaps it would not be too far off base to compare what is going on in the Church to the old Kubler-Ross stages of dying. If so, we 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. All we have to do is make it through depression (some may already be there) to true acceptance, and we’ll 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.