I am a big reader of science fiction (at least when I find the time). I began when a high school friend got me to sign up for the “Science Fiction Book Club” and I have been hooked ever since. Some of those books were kind of written like Star Trek. Aliens would generally look like humans with different bumps and ridges but generally the same size as us and the same issues. But a few of the books portrayed alien life as it would develop on other planets – ones with more gravity and pressure. If human ships visited, they would have to alter their own internal pressurization or they would start crumpling like an aluminum can when you step on it. A ship designed for Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t be ready automatically simply to swoop into a planet with significantly more gravity and pressure. Without adjustments, the ship would slowly get crushed.
In seminary, I remember thinking after watching a science fiction show which showed a ship experiencing greater and greater external pressure and starting to compress – “That’s just what is going to happen to many mainline denominations when I grow older.” My reasoning was that in church after church I went and visited, they were stocked full of active folks who were going to age out of leadership within a decade. Human beings, even when blessed with many years, can only lead so long. Take out those internal supports and outside pressure will start collapsing decks of the big ship Church.
Of course, the answer everyone had (and often still has) is that we must restock the church with younger people to reestablish the pressure balance. It sounds good in theory. In practice though, what worked in the 20th century does not translate for many in the 21st century. We just aren’t going to swoop into this 21st century world and find enough folks not just to refill our pews but to perform the same functions as their parents and grandparents. And the structures they built, and the norms they established, aren’t compatible with the new atmosphere of family, single, or even retired life today.
What I didn’t foresee then though, but see more and more today, is that as the pressure increased, loyal souls within the church who stayed even as numbers dwindled rallied and often took up the roles of two, three, or more leaders to keep the ship stable. But, as time has gone on, these “support structure” leaders are getting tired and burned out. Particularly in neighborhood churches, I see this as a major issue.
We often rally to the cry of, “we need more people to help our leaders not burn out.” But if someone is doing the job of three or four leaders, it gets harder and harder to say, “Hey, why don’t you do this for awhile?” It may be fair but it isn’t exactly what folks thought of walking in the door of the church years ago. We also will say, “Hey, the ‘hired guns’ are supposed to do this, aren’t they?” referring to whomever the church has on staff. But a staff member is supposed to be a spiritual coach, teacher, and leader versus a player on the field. Staff members today must step into the gaps and help connect the dots more than ever. But, hiring someone to do what members and friends of the church used to do isn’t exactly the solution the church needs either.
Re-Design is the only answer that makes sense to me. If the church isn’t structured for its current environment, the answer isn’t to keep pushing on till the ship can go no further. It is to redesign it for its new environment. This may mean sharing our (“ship”) i.e. facilities. It may mean having smaller staffs. It may mean moving. But the bottom line is we are called to follow God together. And we have to lose the blissful image of the way we think things should be and start building for the atmosphere that really surrounds us.
One thing that is vital and absolutely central is for us all to get back to why we gathered in the first place (or why our parents brought us to church). It has to be about a deepening relationship with God (and with one another). If church is not accomplishing this central purpose, then we need to figure out how we can restructure to do just that. It may seem like an odd question, but if you go to church, when is the last time you talked about God in church? When is the last time you felt God in church? When is the last time you felt God answering a prayer you lifted up in church? If the answer to these questions are hard to answer, it may be prime time for us to take a step back and re-evaluate. It’s important to remember – our classes, our choirs, our meetings, our buildings, and even our worship services are not eternal. The only thing promised to last are our relationships with God and one another are. We’ve got to get back to that being our central focus versus all the things “church” has come to mean over the years.
Stepping away from it all may seem like a healthy answer if we are wearing out. If you are tired, you may need someone else to step in for a time. But I surely do not think God wants us to burn out worshiping him. God certainly doesn’t want us to feel hopeless. Just as the moment came for Elijah in the wilderness when he was numbly lying on the ground ready to give up but God had not given up on him – so I know God has not given up on us. God called Elijah back to lead through that still small voice. I know that voice is present still today.
When it comes to the community of faith, we simply have to seek a way that makes it work for us in this time and place. That might call for a radical redesign. But God has redesigned his people many times and in many ways over the eons. Despite our thoughts about the church being stagnant, it has changed and continues to change. But will we be a part of what God is doing?
We can find a way to get back to a healthy equilibrium. I just don’t think it involves keeping or “fixing” the status quo. I really believe more than at any other time in history, local neighborhood churches are being called to be innovative and they need innovative leaders. Following God’s call, we can adapt and even thrive in this new atmosphere – especially if we let go of designs meant for yesteryear.
I hope that wherever you worship, you will continue to give a part of your life to helping a community of faith redesign itself to bring us all closer to God and to one another. It isn’t just a nice thing to do. I truly believe it is part of why we are here.
What do you think?
Until next time,