“What is the future of the church?”
It's probably no surprise to anyone that this is a question I get a lot. Different folks are trying to figure out what to do and and how to do it. There are concerns about whether or not we’re putting our resources into the right things or putting together the right programs. There are concerns brought up about the number of youth, children, families and young adults in our pews. There are concerns brought up about whether we are putting all we need to into the work of social justice. All these are great concerns and important questions to bring up but none of these have ever felt like the right place to focus, ultimately. Sometimes, the resources we think will save us - money, buildings, time - become less of something that serve a forward looking purpose and more of something we serve. Focusing on one program or another begins to feel more like a magical formula than a faithful one. We end up treating youth, children, families and young adults as a resources for a transfusion of idealism and energy more than equals. Although our faith and works of justice and service are inseparable, we sometimes look at the doing of this work as a marketing or evangelism campaign of sorts. Again, recognizing that we have to do more in all the areas is important but these things, in and of themselves, do not guarantee the future of the church.
Two weeks ago was the first fall gathering of the PNC at N-Sid-Sen. Most of you may remember that the initial intent of splitting the one spring meeting into two was to give people more of choice about what kind of meeting they wanted to attend. The intent was that the spring meeting would be the business meeting and the fall meeting would more of the programmatic meeting. But, as the committee did their planning, something changed in a significant way. The primary focus moved from being an extension of what we might learn together to providing a place and a format to deepen relationships with each other. The further along in the planning process the committee went, the more I became convinced this was the right thing and the more I became excited about what the planning committee was creating. What I saw at N-Sid-Sen proved that the right choices were made.
The best way I can describe it is that I saw the future of the church start to wake up. We had many of the same topics we’ve had during lots of workshops at Annual meeting relating to everything ranging from “Best Practices in Mission Trips;” the search and call process; deepening faith and relationships; community outreach; church finances and stewardship; “Overcoming Obstacles to Change;” and much more. The difference was that the task of those leading these sessions weren’t there as experts in one topic or another (although they frequently were experts). The task was to help facilitate conversations among those who were interested in the topic with each other and, in so doing, uncover the expertise that was already there and build relationships among those gathered. Over the weekend, I saw these conversations continue and anxious energy replaced by relational energy. What surprised me was that I also heard about conversations between people that helped bring clarity to some lingering interpersonal challenges; apologies made with sincerity and vulnerability; the emerging recognition that being in better relationship with each other and the world is what we are really seeking. In a whole new way, I saw us resisting the dominant idea of “power over” and discovering the untapped strength of “power with.”
This, I have come to believe, is the future of the church. A lot of the work of Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear (our Minister for Church Vitality) has been pointing in this direction but the more and more we begin to live in to practicing what this might mean, the more I’m convinced this is key to living in to what God is calling us to become. Somewhere along the way, we began to lift up commitments to the institution of the church as the source of vitality as opposed to making our commitments to be in relationship with God, love, justice and each other as that source. There’s been more than one time when I’ve smacked myself on the forehead because as we’ve started to practice focusing on relationships as key it doesn’t feel as though this is a new thing as much as something we’d collectively forgotten. It’s something we know to do but not always something we know how to do.
The temptation of the Church is to become too self referential; our mission becomes our own perpetuation. We can become part shallow entities that insist on being served. But by consciously and intentionally changing the focus of the church to serving God and God’s people through works of mercy, justice and compassion, something different happens. Churches can find new vitality as part of the larger God movement. Those involved in this work have the opportunity find meaning through service; faith grown in community; hope sustained by action; and relationships that nurture the soul of the world. We are called not to be inward facing, self-referential institutions but communities that turn ourselves inside out to serve God and God’s people.
In the coming months, we’re going to be focusing on this more and more as a conference and we need your help. To than end, I’d ask you to consider doing 5 things:
Make some time to sit down with a different person within your congregation you don’t know too well. Do this once a month for the next year. I know in small congregations this might seem like more of a challenge and there’s always more to know about each other. Try to know what is at the heart of their fears and motivations. What gets them out of bed in the morning or keeps them awake at night. Get to know those you share a congregation with and see what a difference this starts to make. Invite at least one of these folks to do the same.
Reach out to someone from another UCC congregation at least once this year and learn more about them and their church.
Attend at least two conference gatherings this year (a meeting, one of our gatherings, an installation, ordination, local church event, etc.) and have a conversation with a couple people there.
Please pray for this unfolding process with our collective life together in your private prayers and lift it up on your congregation’s prayers.
Encourage your church to increase their giving to the conference and denomination so that this work can be sustained. Personally, go to pncucc.org, click on the “Donate” button in the upper right hand corner and consider becoming a monthly giver to Friends of the Conference.
The future of the church is becoming clearer and it is rooted in things we know to do but don’t always know how to do. With God’s help and yours, I’m convinced we can get there.