Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center, was the commencement speaker this year at Hamline University School of Law. He offered some life lessons to those new law graduates that I think apply to our churches as well. I would like to highlight a few of them over the next few months.
First and foremost, he said, don’t be afraid. Most law graduates have that dreaded bar exam to take, and there is fear that if they do not pass it, the past three years will have been for naught. Vieth says fear can be a motivator in that it causes you to study hard. But fear can also get the better of us. It can keep us from recognizing and celebrating the joy of this moment and what we have accomplished. And it can paralyze us from taking action for fear of failing or being rejected.
I may be wrong, but it feels like there is a lot of fear and anxiety in our churches. Maybe that is just a reflection of the larger culture, or maybe it is a symptom of what the church is facing. The fears I hear are mostly around questions about the future. Many of our congregations are getting smaller and older, and are having a harder time paying the bills and reaching that next generation. Something that has been beloved to one generation is not catching hold with the next generation, and we are stymied as to why and what to do next. Our fear is that all we have worked towards, invested in, and cared about will not continue beyond us.
Our fear is also around wanting to get it right. Most churches I work with know that innovation needs to happen and we need to try new things to reach a new generation. But they also know that change comes at a price. We risk alienating the ones who are here and have been here and have found value in the ways things are. So we are fearful to the harm we might cause to our existing relationships for the sake of trying to reach some new people when we have no assurance that we will. It feels like we are betting the farm and, if we are, then we want and need to know that we are making the right choices and will succeed. We want to know about the others who have tried this road before us and that they survived to tell the story and, even more, they have a better future. The difficult part to all of that is we are in new territory for what it means to be the church and engage the culture, and there are very few road maps. This is scary stuff.
First and foremost, do not be afraid. You find those words often in the Bible. When an angel shows up, when Jesus appears, when God is calling the Israelites to a new future, the first words offered are “do not be afraid.” So what does God know that we don’t? We are not alone. We do not have to do this on our own. And the future is good. It may be different. It may be asking us to go new places and learn new things, but it is good and filled with hope. God wants and intends for us to have a life full of joy, love, and peace. God wants our best.
What I try to remember every day is: First, I am creative, resourceful, and whole. I have capacities to navigate this situation, and somehow God will work in it for good. Each of our churches has assets. Our fear gets the best of us when we focus on what we don’t have instead of looking at what we do have and what we can do. We are creative, resourceful, and whole. And secondly, I remind myself that Jesus Christ is risen. God is alive and at work in the world. It is not all up to me. This is God’s church and God is not done yet. Therefore what do I have to fear? If God is for us, who can be against us? Do not be afraid!
Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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