For The Someday Book

Two Conversations on the Future of the Church

Posted on: January 26, 2010

I am attending my conference’s annual clergy retreat. I look forward to the quiet time away with a room of my own and lots of books, good food and conversations with colleagues. I do not look forward to the presentations and featured speakers. It’s the same thing every time, and it’s always depressing.

Today, I heard basically the same presentation I have heard at the last two clergy retreats. It’s also the same basic presentation I have heard at the last two annual meetings of the conference. Today, the presenter actually cited the person who gave the previous presentation at annual meeting and showed his slides–probably not knowing he had given that presentation to us already. This same presentation is also the subject of numerous books, which I’ve been reading since seminary ten years ago (and the most recent two I have read and reviewed here on this blog). A colleague reminded me that the book the retreat is named after, The Once and Future Church, is now 20 years old.

This is not the particular fault of the presenters. They are all different, and fine presenters, and (as far as I can tell) no one has disclosed to them that this has been the theme for the last several years and they might be covering duplicate ground.

The topic is this: What went wrong with the church? What happened to the “good old days” when denominations were strong, attendance was high, churches and membership were growing and building, and everyone loved us mainline protestants? The presenter outlines the breakdown of generations (see my previous two book review posts here and here for more information), and talks about the mess we are in.

I have nothing against this particular information. I am interested enough to have read two books on the subject in the last month, and several more in the last year. It is an important and ongoing discussion. What gets me riled up is attitude of hopeless gloom and doom that can pervade the conversation. (And always seems to pervade the conversation at these conferences.)

Thinking about it, it seems there are actually two conversations going on about the exact same topic and same information. In one conversation, people are moaning and groaning, asking “how did we get into this pit?” (Literally, that’s what the presenter yesterday called it.) They are filled with fear and see the imminent demise of the church. People measure by numbers of money and persons and churches and come up wanting. You hear words like, “decline,” “shrink,” “collapse,” “fracture,” “end.” It is depressing, and the people having this conversation are depressed.

There is, however, another conversation going on at the same time, about the same topic. This conversation is bubbling over with excitement, and no one seems depressed, even though everyone is working hard and no one knows exactly what they are doing. In this conversation, you hear words like, “change,” “transform,” “connect,” “teach,” “revive,” “thrive,” “discipleship.” It sounds like this:

  • We changed our Sunday school program, and it transformed our whole community. Now, children connect to adult mentors, who teach them about church life. It has revived everyone’s faith!
  • We changed the way we do baptism, and it transformed from an old ritual to a real connection to the community. We teach people that baptism is about the community, and revived the tradition of baptism sponsors. Now everyone sees it as an important responsibility for discipleship.
  • We changed our governing structure, and transformed from committees into ministry teams. People can connect to one another, grow in discipleship and serve in ministry without having to commit to all these meetings. Our programs are thriving!
  • We have started a Facebook group to connect people, and it has transformed and revived Sunday morning fellowship time. People connect online, then in person. Instead of talking to the same old people, members are changing seats, moving around and friendships are thriving.

Tell me, which of those lists of words are Gospel words? Which are the words that Jesus used, the words of good news?

The facts are the same in both conversations–the trends, numbers, cultural realities and challenges have not changed. What’s different is the attitude of the people in response. For some of us, this is a moment of great opportunity for Christianity to be reborn, revived and re-established in its roots as a prophetic social movement critical of the powers-that-be. We feel like pioneers, venturing into new territory, discovering what it means to live in this new environment. Instead of the demise of the church, we see an entire generation who needs to hear the gospel–a mission field unseen in many generations. We emerge with new ideas and new faith. Rather than complain about biblical illiteracy, we relish the opportunity to shape people’s faith from the  ground up, to teach the Bible to a hungry crowd, to tell the stories of the faith to those who  have never heard. The advent of new technologies like social media gives us the opportunity to translate the gospel into new languages and new formats. It’s a whole new terrain, with the chance to build a whole new church that fits the changing landscape.

We are explorers and entrepreneurs, experimenters and inventors, going forth with only the Gospel of Jesus Christ as our guide–knowing that everyone in this new world needs to know about God’s love and the power of grace, to experience community and the power of hope. We see possibility everywhere, and God’s Spirit going ahead of us. When we get together, the conversation is endless, and filled with excitement, and we all depart energized by new ideas and holy power. This conversation is open–all are welcome to join.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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