Pouring better gas into an electric car will not make it go any faster. The quality of the gasoline may be an improvement and the sacrifice made to purchase it greater but the context of propulsion has changed.
Re-vitalizing congregtions that are no longer vital may feel good for members, but it will not produce new disciples of Jesus given the dramatic shifts that have taken place while we were working hard to keep things working as well as they once had on our church campuses.
So much has changed and is changing around us. Covid 19, a reawakening to the persistent rhizomatic reality of systemic racism, jobs lost and businesses closing. This is all happening at the tail end of a 50-year decline in church membership and the steady increase in the number of those who have no religious preference or who are just done with church as we prefer it.
Many of us who are leaders now grew up with three television stations, rotary or touch tone phones and typewriters. The jokes we told back then, the expressions that were popular then, and the news stories we remembered most are lost on the younger adults who, if they stay around, will take on the role of leaders in the Church and will do much differently.
Our perspectives on why we are Church and how we ought to go about being the church used to be more similar from congregation to congregation when we had fewer choices and greater accountability for the choices we made. What many adults in the three youngest generations are telling us by their absence (and now the members of our congregations who skip through or totally ignore our streaming or recorded Sunday worship) is that something important is missing.
Lately, I have been drawn to the work of church consultant Gilbert Rendle. In his book, Quietly Courageous, he cites the research of “Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, who in 2015 were students at Harvard Divinity School.” They surveyed Millennial adults and asked them what they sought in the communities they engaged in:
If we look back at the gospels, at the life and teaching of Jesus, how many of the descriptions Rendle cites above can we find? All of them. How many of these same dynamics accurately describe who we are and what we do as congregations currently?
We are entering a time when the best leaders do not have answers, they are trying to form better questions. That puts us at odds with the expectations of those who are understandably grieving several losses:
When grief and loss become overwhelming, we are vulnerable and prone to be misled by those who claim to have simple solutions, people who seem to rise above all problems. It takes courage to lead with questions, to be genuinely curious, admit dependence upon the wisdom of an unseen Holy Spirit, and take determined steps into an uncertain future.
More of us are realizing that we are stronger going into an uncertain future if we start moving in that direction together, compare notes with each other about what we notice and experience of what may be ahead, and becoming okay with uncertainty that we are always leading in the direction where God is already at work and waiting for us.
We have a role model for this. His name is Jesus.
Notice that we are having more online conversations. Not how-to-webinars. Conversations. Questions. Explorations of what could be – what we might try on our own or together. We are becoming, in my opinion, a lot less certain and perhaps a lot more faithful. Christ is still leading the way. We follow.