Recently, I was on a Facebook page for a childhood friend and high school classmate who died this past year, and it brought back a flood of memories of what was. Growing up we were very active with sports – depending on the season, football, baseball, or track. Then there was always fishing, hunting, and winter sports as skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing way up there in northeastern Minnesota along Lake Superior and in the Superior National Forest. Life was different back then.
Similarly, I reflect on my career of being a pastor. I’m heading into my 37th year of being a pastor in the Lutheran Church. Starting out our task as pastors was to keep the church going and growing. The systems and beliefs for that were in place. So, we as pastors were taught to be mostly chaplains, worship leaders, teachers and preachers, (who were taught to preach to folks who we were told already knew the important parts of the Bible). We were expected to be social workers, community organizers, corporate administrators and church program developers.
It was in the mid 1980’s that I began to realize, that no matter how well one did, or how many hours one put in, and no matter how faithful and responsive one was to congregational members, the growth stopped. Something was changing that pastors and churches had no control over.
So, we would try harder and work longer and talk endlessly about it. We would look for the latest and greatest church tool sure to help us overcome our loss of momentum. I would go to seminars and workshops, and my congregations would faithfully and generously send me. Yet, such never paid the dividends for which we hoped.
The whole problem was not that any of these things were wrong or misguided, it was just that it took decades to realize they just didn’t work that well anymore. Something very profound was afoot. We could sense it, but we could not identify it.
It was like waking up to a whole new world. It was (and is) like the world around us doesn’t understand church language and culture. Likewise, we no longer understand the culture and the language of those outside the church. We look at them and wonder, “Why don’t you understand us anymore?” They look at us and wonder, “Why don’t you understand us and the life we have to live? You’re not getting us!”
Argh! Therefore, in the book that I have been reading, “Canoeing the Mountains”, points out that we are great at solving technical problems. It’s not for lack of hard work and smarts that we are where we are. Rather, we are heading into uncharted territory.
Thus, we cannot solve our current situation of the nationwide decline of church communities by doing what we have always done. We are in an environment for which there is no clear answer. The world in front of us will look nothing like the world behind us. What is required is a transformation.
We must leave behind our need for certainty and predictability. For the careful and cautious this is going to be a tough road. We are going to have to see ourselves as missionaries in an uncertain world, rather than depending upon the certainty of being church members in a world that we think knows us and understands us. They don’t. Sometimes adventures are like that. Adventures are journeys into the unknown. This is what it means to be a church community in our day and age.
So, the bad news is that we face a dilemma. On one hand, to continue to understand ourselves as we always have will result in our being further alienated from the world around us. On the other hand, transformation will cause disruption in the status quo and many will not see that as preferable either. It’s going to be an adventure.
But like the apostles of old, they never knew how this was going work either. But it did. Therefore, it is key to see this as God’s Spirit moving, even if it’s uncomfortable. What’s at stake here is not buildings, budgets and institutions, but the very message of the gospel itself. This is what God is calling us to.
The world has changed. Now we need to change as well.
Keeping Christ Central,
Pastor Rolf G. Morck