Last week I published a blog, 5 Reasons the Church May Not Find a Way Ahead. This blog is the counterpoint.
First, a couple of preliminary clarifications.
When using the word “church” I do not mean the abstract theological concept of wherever there are people who try and follow the Way of Jesus there is church. While I believe that is true I have in mind some version of a more mainline oriented church, like The United Church of Canada, who hold some centre like the Basis of Union and whose culture contains the practice of open theological and ethical inquiry and the practice of engaging the larger culture.
By using the phrase “make it” I have in mind the continuation of some affiliation of congregations/communities of faith who associate for the purpose of mutual support, discernment and action in the Way of Jesus. They exist beyond the charisma of one leader, develop the faith and practice of their members, and have a continuity of engagement with the world God loves.
My criteria for finding pro-survival signs was not theological or ethical but based on the tradecraft of leadership. What are the signs of hope?
1. Leaders are whining and grieving less and so are more able to pay attention and move forward
There is less denial about the sociological situation of the church. In part this means that leaders are more able to look at challenges and opportunities actually before them.
Although gathering places are still important there is growing recognition that if the ministry of a congregation is tied to the sustenance of a building the gospel train is close to derailment. Many congregations are shifting their focus to building up the people of God and/or mission to the surrounding community. Congregations can remain active and healthy even if they sell their property or rent or lease other space.
Also, there is the gradual dawning upon many who are “called to distinct ministry” - particularly those newly entering paid, accountable work, that the timeline is short in which they can expect the church to provide them with a full-time salary, and benefits, roughly equivalent to a teacher’s salary package.
2. Opportunities abound
Increasingly congregations and their leaders, being less preoccupied with survival, are lifting up their eyes to see the vast multitude of spiritual and practical needs around them. The church is a fish swimming in an ocean of spiritual yearning and physical need.
Whether or not one agrees that loneliness is the #1 affliction of North American society there are yearnings for a community in which to live and through which to offer service.
People are overwhelmed and, at times, need others to help them reset their priorities or to lean on in times of struggle and heartache.
Although the word is seldom used now, the desire for salvation grows profound and urgent. We do not need to look at the most obvious - addictions to drugs, consumerism and workaholism - to hear a heartfelt desire for what is more commonly termed as “transformation” or “a new way of life.”
A world in which the label “un-truth” is acceptable proves unacceptable to many. Information, much of it acknowledged as false, abounds. Where are the touchstones? What are the safe places where people can wrestle with principles, practices and projections?
3. There are multiple ways for the church to engage the public realm
For long past the due date, the church fancied itself the conscience of the nation. While still important to raise and advocate for important concerns the bulk of congregations and their leaders now explore the many other ways in which the church can engage the public realm. Acts of charity and compassion - once denigrated as somehow unfaithful because they were not about systemic change - are now being embraced not only as ways of meeting immediate need but as authentic ways of building relationships with the communities in which congregations are situated.
The presence of a more “monastic” style of discipleship is also a time-honoured means by which the church has engaged the public realm if only as a sign of “another way” or a means to preserve important values and practices in danger of being lost.
Partnerships are another code word to signify that the church wishes to engage but no longer expects to set the agenda or dominate the outcome.
4. Old practices are being taken more seriously
The ancient practice of Cristian hospitality provides one clear example of an old-but-new-again practice. Congregations are moving past the expectation that all people need to do is come and see how great we are and then they’ll be hooked. Now people are striving to actually listen and engage the real people with whom they come in contact without the vampire expectation of fresh blood. When the prime purpose is not recruitment but developing a relationship, to discern where God might be present and moving in a person’s life, the old practice becomes new. And, as a result, each new relationship changes the community.
Other examples include renewed interest in worship, daily prayer, meditation, among others.
5. Ministry with children, youth and their families
The Achilles heel for many United Church congregations has long been the lack of intentional pathways of leadership development and faith formation. The result has been that many young parents who show some interest in having their children be part of a Christian community feel themselves ill-equipped. They know more about parenting books and some of the awesome children’s books available than they do about their faith.
While “youth work” has long been a concern for congregations and conferences often those youth feel they have nowhere to go when they “age out.” They cannot find where they fit or experiences that match the great connections made in youth events. Some of that is changing.
In British Columbia Conference, long known for its strength in ministry with children, the conference has decided to initiate and fund a specific program aimed at developing leadership skills for those working with children, youth and their families. In keeping with the technological opportunities available, the program will be a mixture of short in-person intensives with online and other delivery methods. In part, this initiative arose because congregations are becoming aware that “how they love the children is how they love the parents” and they seek qualified and trained leaders.
Isn’t that hopeful?
Rev. Dr. Keith Howard is profoundly curious about the interface of the Christian gospel and the social context in which we live. This curiosity has drawn him into many roles, including 23 years of congregational ministry in the United Church; more than five years as executive director of the Emerging Spirit project; and most recently, team leader for LeaderShift in BC Conference. Keith blogs at keithhoward.ca. Sign up for his newsletter here.