Working in the church world is terrifying. For many – parishonier, priest, pastor, teacher, student – these are tumultuous times. Evidence abounds – from the closing of many local Catholic churches and schools (Link) to the struggles within this denomination and its flag ship schools. So how is it that we move forward?
We start with a candid acknowledgement of what is. In the book “Good to Great”, Jim Collins wrote of the “Stockdale Paradox.” To restate the paradox, it is the ability to (a) candidly acknowledge the brutal facts and (b) maintain hope. From a spiritual perspective, it is the prophetic imagination which is able to live in both of those worlds.
And what “is” – the brutal facts – is that fact that a model of church that many of those reading this blog grew up in is unraveling. There is less interest in and financial support for traditional churches and schools. This is arguably part of a growing apathy around the topic of “church” evident in America today. (A recent survey listed 15% of Americans as having no religious affiliation. In 1951 that number was 1%.)
So where does one go? I believe a starting point is simply repentance – candidly acknowledging that church and religious education are irrelevant to many because we as the church body have made it so. The author Donald Miller, author of “Blue Like Jazz”, got that and in an evangelization effort on the campus of Reed College set up a confession booth not to hear confessions but to make them, to apologize on behalf of Christianity for all the misguided ways in which church as an institution hurt others.
What are the sins we need to confess?
- Church has become far too synonymous with politics.
- Church has largely disengaged from the world and its problems
- Church has become more concerned with theological correctness than healing (Water or grape juice at the holy supper anyone?)
- Clergy often view themselves as detached resident experts vs. fellow travelers
Summarized maybe we have made church more “a museum for Saints than a hospital for Sinners.”
What then is the way out? We start with “unlearning” and then move to “radical.” These words by the Richard Rohr get right to it. ”Enlightenment is not about knowing as much as it is about unknowing; it is not so much learning as unlearning. It is more about entering a vast mystery than arriving at a mental certitude. Enlightenment knows that grace is everywhere, and the only reasonable response is a grateful heart and the acknowledgment that there is more depth and meaning to everything. A too quick and easy answer is invariably a wrong one.”
What we “know” then – which is our past experience – maybe one of our biggest blocks. The quick and easy answer I see many churches trying is to simply try to work at the failing system better. So we work at preaching and teaching better but it is within an unraveling system. All that needs “unlearned.” And that unlearning starts with a painful question we prayerfully must ask God, “How do we serve others?”
Off course you read and think – “painful”? what is that about? Service is easy. My answer – NO. Because if you really want to ask that question it means you give up that church or school is for us or for our kids. It is for others.
And that is radical – radical in the true meaning of the word – a word which means “roots.” The disciples thankfully never thought of the very first Christian “church” as being about them and their needs. It then gets us back to ancient future Christianity – the core of the New Church message, a world in which if we do the work, getting ourselves out of the way, the blessings as Emanuel Swedenborg phrased it, can spread “contagiously.” What we most need are the guts to both honor the past and let it go. Then we can start the wonderful journey of living the question!
And there is interest folks in that question. There is reason for hope as we turn around. People have an innate, God given desire to know more of God, to experience God, to engage His Word and Work in all its various forms. These challenging times are painful, true, but also a necessary winnowing as we get back to what Christianity can be, redefining and refining its meaning for this generation. The work of repentance is good work. It is good work because that is where hope lies.