Monday, March 29, 2010

Institutional Death and Resurrection

As we enter another Holy Week, I find myself pondering issues of death and resurrection--not individual death and resurrection, but congregational and denominational death and resurrection. It seems to me that there are many signs that congregations and denominations that flourished in the twentieth century are finding it difficult to continue to survive, much less thrive, in the post-Christendom, post-modern, and post-Great Recession times of the early part of this century. Author and blogger George Bullard has some thoughts on exactly this:

The Columbia Partnership: The Coming Death of National Denominations

Among many other observations, he notes that:

...many national denominations believe that restructuring themselves or re-tasking national agencies is the same thing as renewing the spiritual, strategic direction of the national denomination. No consistent evidence exists that restructuring national denominations alone leads to the renewal of these denominations. Restructuring actually is a step in preparing for another restructuring within five to ten years. Restructuring fits in the same category as rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

Being raised in Silicon Valley and graduating from high school in the mid-1980s, I have some personal experience with the difference between large institutions who fail to innovate quickly and small, nimble companies who can adjust to changing demands and conditions quickly. For more than a decade, I've said that many aspects of mainline denominations resemble a battleship--slow, difficult to steer, but incredibly tough and resilient. There was a reason for the "battleship church"--it was seen as a source of stability, power, and consistency in a world that was anything but stable. Words like "sanctuary" and hymns like "A Mighty Fortress is our God" spoke of the church as an unchanging rock against the tidal waves of change sweeping the culture of the late twentieth century. That sense of the church a a guardian remains one of the main touchstones of many people's faith.

Yet we are now in the era where institutions must be more like powerboats or patrol boats than battleships. The Navy doesn't make or use battleships anymore. In the same way, we in the church must find ways of rediscovering that "nimble church" that is alive, vibrant, and perhaps a bit more vulnerable than the previous "edifice church." That is easier said than done, of course. Planting new churches, re-planting declining or plateaued churches, and not simply rearranging things but revitalizing the things we do is an incredible challenge. Yet the message of Holy Week and Easter is that sometimes things need to die before then can be reborn. The message of the cross is that to get to resurrection we must place our sins at the foot of the cross and die to an old life. How does that function on a congregational level? What things do we need to crucify in our congregations (without getting crucified ourselves, of course!) in order to make room for new life? Something to think about.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Technology and Sanctuary

Take a look at this video. It talks about all of the technological revolutions that have occurred in the last several decades and what is forecast for the future:

I'm 42 years old this year and I am mindful that my lifetime has seen revolution after revolution in how we get, process, and make use of information as well as how the vast majority of the rest of the world does this. And, as the video points out, the rate of change is accelerating logarithmically as each day passes.

Two things occur to me as I think about both the past and the future of the vocation God has called me to as a pastor and priest of the church. First, that this information revolution will affect some things that we do very much--people will have access to a virtually unlimited amount of information about the Bible and theological reflection and will be able to, essentially, be their own expert (for the moment) on anything that they choose to study. Second, however, I believe that there will be an increasing need for a sanctuary from the information tsunami--a place to step back, step out, take a breath, and ask some very low-tech questions about meaning and purpose.

The church may well be uniquely positioned to offer just such a sanctuary, a harbor, in which to ask those questions and seek answers that are not accessible at the touch of a key or the click of a mouse. Now all we have to do is penetrate the noise....

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What is God up to and how can I get in on it?

I've spent more than a little while in thought and prayer about what God might be up to in twenty-first century America and how the congregation I currently lead and I can get in on that action. It is increasingly clear to me that the biggest challenge for the institutional church today is learning how to build on and celebrate what has gone before without succumbing to either grief that much of the last vestiges of Christendom are passing away or the temptation to become a preservation society, frantically scrambling to protect what we already have against the onslaught of post-modernity.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has talked about the concept of the "mixed economy" church where the old and the new not only coexist, but actually support one another. One phrase in (not from him) in particular caught my eye:

Very diverse expressions of church would exist alongside each other in mutual fellowship. Old and new would be a blessing to one another.

Old and new would be a blessing to one another.
So counter-cultural a notion, that both the old and the new would be a blessing to each other rather than a burden. As we move into what many have talked about as a new reformation, a new way of being and doing church, perhaps such a concept would help with this transition. Still thinking....

Monday, March 01, 2010

Spiritual Feeding and Working for It

I'm continuing to ruminate on the idea of spiritual feeding and spiritual growth. So many times I think I'm laying out a spiritual banquet when I preach or teach and yet I will hear "I'm not being fed." Sometimes I think it is a lack of imagination on our part as clergy--we're so used to serving up the usual fare that it never occurs to us to add to, or even rearrange, the spiritual menu. I'm not suggesting getting rid of communion or (God forbid!) the sermon, but I am suggesting that it might make sense to push the edges of the spiritual envelope a bit and see who (literally) "bites."

I don't think it is just the clergy, however. I'm also thinking that in an age of fast food, microwavable dinners, and pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we all might be a little reluctant to work for our spiritual food. Face it, most of us are as lazy spiritually as we are often lazy physically. We want God to show up, put on a good show, give us our instructions for the week, and then disappear in a flash of light, leaving us to live and love for another week. What I suspect we least want to do is to do that daily work of prayer, scripture study, and personal worship that is central to the Christian life. Even as a pastor and priest, there are times when I'd much rather take a nap or catch an hour or so of TV (or do an hour of surfing the Internet) than I would like to engage in personal devotions.

Yet just as there is not substitute for eating healthy and getting exercise, there is no substitute for taking in healthy spiritual food and engaging in (at times rigorous) spiritual exercise. Deep down, we all know this, and yet as much as it is tempting for me as a teacher to try to "re-package" things to appeal to the fast food culture it is also tempting for me as a disciple to want that for myself. May this Lent be a time where we eschew pre-packaged and processed spiritual food for the milk and meat of scripture, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and the sweet honey of God's spirit flowing through us.

UPDATE: One of my favorite theologians, Diana Butler Bass, collaborated on this short video, which says what I just said better than I just said it: