No Longer Leaders
The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 50, aphorism 29, “Dwarf Fruit”
While some folks continue to insist we need to make clear who can and cannot speak on the floor of General Conference; while others continue to make threats about leaving the denomination should we change our pastoral stance regarding sexual minorities; while we continue to divide our congregations according to “worship style” and other increasingly meaningless phrases; while all this is going on, more and more folks are just taking a glance at our institutions and saying, “Forget it.” Congregations lament their shrinking size, the lack of young adults, particularly young couples with children, yet refuse to make the changes necessary that might well make these same young folks take a second glance at the church doors on a Sunday morning and say, “Hm. Maybe I will go in there.”
An article at Religion News Service, by church consultant and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich nicely captures the current state of our mainline churches.
Seminaries’ woes are further sign that mainline Protestant religion is being forced to engage with a world that yearns for faith but cares little for mainline institutions and traditions.
When so much energy has gone into maintaining those institutions, what is left when people, especially young adults, turn away from “church” as we know it, that is, our church facilities, clergy, doctrines and church-centered worship?
The most far-reaching implication is this: We are discovering that the world can get along without us. Few are asking for our authoritative guidance. Our clergy aren’t seen as “thought leaders” or our institutions as worthy of emulation.
Before we get all caught up in other arguments, perhaps we all need to shut up and take in this reality: No one cares all that much for what we in the churches have to say. As hard as we work; as many consultants as we hire; as many gimmicks as we try; as many superstar clergy we lift up for others to emulate; as much as we try to get the word out about all the good we do all over the world; despite all this, more and more young people wonder why they should waste their time, their emotional energy, and their resources with institutions that seem hell-bent on destroying themselves arguing among themselves over things that are irrelevant to the lives of those the church should be reaching but aren’t.
Now we are the “least of these.” We are the ones who can’t manage our affairs without ugly conflict. We are the ones who get caught in unethical behavior, whose assemblies are marked by nostalgia, not urgency. We are the ones who don’t know the way forward. We are the ones with problems we can’t solve.
Like the downtrodden peasants in a Russian novel, we know ourselves as decent people, but the powerful ignore us, and our neighbors find us tiresome, evaders of taxes. What happened to the “noblesse” we thought defined us and the special treatment we thought we deserved?
It’s a difficult time. Some disturbing new reality is settling in, and it’s deeper than struggling institutions and financial shortfalls.
We are discovering that we are in the one-down position. We are the needy; we are the uncertain. Our clergy struggle with burnout and self-destructive behaviors. Our lay leaders are angry and distracted by worldly concerns. Our gatherings often feel listless and backward-focused.
There are few things worse than being ignored, treated as a joke, told that one is irrelevant. All this is happening, however, in a world desperate for Good News. American society, for all we have and all we are, is floundering. Staring at an uncertain future, we allow ourselves to be frightened by each story that we hear or read, whether it’s a new terrorist group in the Middle East or a dread, tropical disease that has come to our shores. We want to hear there is more to life than treading water, our head barely above the surface, with the thought that sharks are circling beneath us. We want to know that our lives are for something, not just struggling week to week, wondering what kind of world our children and grandchildren will have left to them.
Our churches must not lead. We must serve. We must look out upon our communities, large and small, big cities, suburban sprawl, and the vast rural landscape, and hear the cries of the needy, the mourning over lost community, lost direction, lost purpose. We must not – must not – offer answers, programs, prepackaged solutions to the many complaints, fears, and pent-up rages. We must – must – rather, be willing to invite these mourning, hurting, drifting neighbors and friends, coworkers and strangers to come and mourn with us. We must comfort them. We must listen to their pain, their anger, their hurt. The Good News they need to hear is not about Jesus entering their hearts. The Good News is not that God will solve their problems if they pray harder. The Good News they need is a place to go to be comforted in the midst of their mourning, confusion, anger, and questioning. When they demand answers, when they insist we respond when they ask us about what God is doing for them, for all of us, we must not answer with words, but surround them with a community of love, and care, and fellow-mourners, fellow angry, confused, hurting lost people who have the same questions, the same fears, and offer only comfort to those who mourn. That is more than enough Good News to be getting on with.