What if the questions we now face are not the product of things gone wrong but rather a world grown different? —Gil Rendle, “Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World”
That is a provocative question. Our human nature is to look for who or what to blame when things feel like they are going wrong. I have sat in many conversations with churches that have asked big questions about what it will take to reach new people and why young people are not “returning” to church once they are married and have children, like previous generations did. They often start down the list of “if only.” If only we had a better band or a charismatic youth leader or a pastor with a young family. If only we re-start that social group ministry we had back in the ’60s or ’70s that we all remember so fondly, then we will “fix” what is wrong and grow the church again.
But the world that gave rise to the church that could simply open its doors and then see all the people flood in no longer exists. In his book, Rendle talks about what he calls an “aberrant era” that fostered the form of The United Methodist Church that is now breaking apart. The first half of the 20th century was a time of unprecedented cohesion. The pinnacle of that was the remarkable 15 years when the country went through the Great Recession and World War II. People were willing to sacrifice for the common good. Being an American was a primary identity rather than our individual cultural, racial, and ethnic identities. Large, bureaucratic organizations grew and thrived.
Then in the late 20th century, there was a rise in individualism. People reacted to the uniformity by rightly arguing that it came at a significant cost to many, which led to movements around civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, to name a few. It was a time of deregulation that spurred innovation. And at the end of that century, the Internet arrived, which has been a game-changer for every industry and all of our lives.
Rendle posits that the mainline church that we point back to as our heyday benefited from a unique set of circumstances that are not repeatable. At mid-century, as the nation was coming home from World War II, we experienced the rise of suburbs and the middle class. The cohesion from the first half of the century was still in place with large, bureaucratic organizations leading in our country (think Ford, GE, and IBM), and the energy and dynamism of the beginning of divergence was creating a culture of possibility.
On top of that, Christianity benefited from being the “national cultural” religion; it is in this era that “In God We Trust” was added to our Pledge of Allegiance. This was the time in which the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church took place, and we shaped a church to mirror what was happening in the world around us: large, bureaucratic, and franchise-like in its local church structure. What we did not realize is that we were on the cusp of a new era beginning, and the model we were building would not be sustainable or effective in this new world.
So now, we find ourselves in a different place. It is disorienting as what is familiar fades away and what it to be is not yet clear. There are no quick fixes. This is a time of listening and learning. The questions we need to hold in this season, Rendle says, are: How will we now be with God? And how will we now be with one another?
When I work with churches, they get frustrated with me because they want the answer to the question: What should we do? Give us the program, the marketing technique, the worship design that will help us start a new lifecycle. And instead, I ask them questions: Why do you follow Jesus? What is it about your experience in Christian community that is so life-giving that you want to share with others? Who are the people in your community and what are they hungering and thirsting for? What do we need to do in order for people to see and discover the bread of life and the living water that is Jesus through us? Identity. Purpose. Context. This is the deep work we need to engage in because God seems to be birthing a new expression of the United Methodist Church, and we want to be a part of that!
Many have named this era we are in currently as a liminal one. Something has ended. A new thing has not yet fully emerged. We are on the threshold. Liminal times are messy and can be anxiety-producing for those us who have a hard time with the unknown. But this is where God shines. We are invited to enter into the mystery of this holy, creative work, and listen deeply for what God is up to.
Krista Tippett, who hosts the podcast “On Being,” has said, “Our present liminal time is a spiritual revolution, marked by profound spiritual curiosity, deep theological engagement, and a reawakening of mystery that embrace science.” If indeed we are in the midst of a spiritual revolution, what a great time to be the church, presuming we can let go of wanting it to be how it used to be, and embracing the new thing God is doing now.
“For we know that the whole of creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Romans 8:22
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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