It is time to stop looking back, time to over-strike the lament that goes something like this:
Compared to the heyday of the American Mainline churches in the 1950’s and 1960’s, fewer people are becoming church members now, fewer people are attending church, fewer people are volunteering for church support and community outreach activities, and financial donations are dropping. Oh, it used to be that the church was full every Sunday and even overflowing on Christmas Eve. There were kids and young families everywhere. There was plenty of help and enough money to comfortably get us through. Then there was that time we could count on the fancy evangelical churches growing even if the Mainline was fading, and we could try to look like them and act like them, hoping that their mojo might wear off on us somehow. But now they are losing folks, just like us. No… Something bigger is happening. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. So let us join together in responsive prayer: Leader: The sky is falling!
People: We have hit the iceberg and we’re going down!
Leader: If only we could find a way to bring back the good ole’ days…
People: God, turn back the hands of time!
All: Oh, woe are we…
Lamentation, second-guessing, and worry have done us no good at all. It is time now to step into the unknown future and boldly, courageously embrace new light and new life. Given the way various realities are lined up at this point, there is simply no other way.
On Sunday, January 25, more than 20 people from St. Paul’s joined with about 180 others to participate in a local program sponsored by the Westminster Ecumenical Ministerium and led by Diana Butler Bass, an internationally renowned researcher and writer who has extensively studied the sociology surrounding church life these days. Butler Bass gave us all much to think about beginning with some basic demography. She talked about the growing number of people who identify as part of the group called “nones” because in surveys of religious affiliation they say they identify with “none of the above.” They are atheists and agnostics and a whole range of people who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” who generally believe in God or a higher power of some sort but do not adhere to any particular institutional religious tradition. Their existence raises questions about our future.
One key foundation of her program was her presentation of a cultural change cycle that moves from Crisis to Transformation. Organized in the shape of a “U” with Crisis on the top left and Transformation on the top right, the model places “New Visions” at the bottom of the diagram, a place where organizations working toward transformation need to authentically come to terms with real, shared data and begin to seriously grapple with new ways forward. It is clear that the journey around the U from Crisis to Transformation takes time and requires deliberate investment in meaningful conversations. No organization can jump immediately from Crisis to Transformation without doing the work that will get them there. The journey involves, on the left side, letting go of ideas that pull us backward, and on the right side, letting come ideas that can draw us forward.
Butler Bass pointed out that churches often have trouble getting to and past the middle, seeing the second part of the process as too daunting. Yet daunting is an accurate perception. This work is not for wimps. And we have that work ahead of us. We have done well to keep up as much as we have. We are now making plans to bear down on this process and tackle the challenges that point us toward brand new opportunities. This will lead us beyond gimmicks and cosmetic adaptations into deeper exploration and more profound change. Stay tuned for opportunities to be part of these vital conversations and to be involved in the process of creating our new vision for the future.