There is nothing new about church decline. The church in America has been in decline for decades. The denomination which I am a pastor, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) had over five million members in the late 1990s when I started seminary. As of December 31, 2013, the membership of the ELCA was 3,863,133. (ELCA Fast Facts. Online Available: http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/ELCA-Facts.) I can only imagine that as 2015 begins, we have continued to shrink as a group.
Without getting into all the reasons for this precipitous decline, I’ll just assert that there is a real need for change, and many have seen it coming for a while. I went back to seminary in 2009 to work on “something new.” That renewed study was focused on congregational renewal, mission, evangelism, shifting the focus, and restructuring the systems. It was becoming clear to me that the church we have inherited was no longer working the way it should, and we needed to do something else – not just for survival, but to actually live our faith in the world, be bold and courageous, and take on our apostolic (an old word meaning ‘sent’) identity as followers of Jesus.
Bishop Jim Hazelwood’s leadership has urged the New England Synod to become a synod of experimentation; as each ministry and the leaders that serve them are encouraged to try “something new.” One of the new resources available is a “Try Something New in New England” Facebook group where people can share their experiments, look for new ideas, or simply not feel like they are the only ones working on how to be church differently in a time of change. I’ve been thinking about how to articulate what “something new” means to me. I shared this statement with the group:
“Something new” is not and cannot be a different program or a fix it strategy or a way to even reorganize ourselves. “Something new” is calling into question all of our assumptions, testing them, and coming out in a different place. It takes time, resolve, and a willingness to understand that as a leader you may be five steps ahead of the group while remaining patient and vigilant even when others don’t “get it.” We should celebrate small epiphanies, because big “aha” moments are hard to come by, but need to be celebrated when they do.
“Something new” is also owning the reality that none of us really know what the heck we are doing anymore, and being OK with that. It is getting up after either a triumph or defeat and admitting in all honesty we don’t know when we try things what the outcome is going to be. In that regard “something new” is not giving God lip service or being able to adequately really describe the fullness of the Spirit’s activity. “Something new” is in that sense surrender – trusting that somehow God is involved beyond us, yet God using us to push forward to climb over the mountain to a promised land we currently can’t even see.
All of our notions of success or failure are ultimately limited by “something new.” Yet our hope remains for small little glimpses of the kingdom that Jesus continued to preach and live and our efforts (however feeble at times) are to join and participate in that kingdom yet to be realized. We may not really be able to describe it, but we know “something new” when we see it, and our job then is to point it out and invite others to it when our eyes are opened.
“Something new” is ultimately nothing more or less than setting aside everything we know and have learned, and while terrified at what that prospect might actually mean if we really took it to heart, it is saying, “OK God, here I am. Now what?” (Geoff Sinibaldo, “Try Something New in New England,” Post from 1/10/2015 – slightly edited.)
I believe the temptation many of us face is to simply repackage what we have always done and call it “new”- to choose the orange folders instead of the green ones, use them exactly the same way, and call it “new.” It is also very tempting to simply double down on past efforts – “This didn’t work last time; probably because we didn’t try hard enough. This time we are going to try harder, spend more energy, use more resources, and you’ll see – it will work...”
As someone who has attempted this strategy a number of times, I can share from my experience it rarely works and it if there is any success at all it comes at a high price with diminishing returns; leaving everyone exhausted.
In my view, to engage “something new” means we have to understand three fundamental realities:
1. We live in a new world.
I don’t remember who said it, but a great quote I heard about a year ago was “The church of the 21st century has more in common with the church of the 1st century than the church of the 20th century.” We live in a different time and place than many of our congregational, judicatory and denominational structures and programs are designed to accommodate. Think of it – unconsciously many churches are designed to support two parent families with multiple children where one parent stays at home. Even if that reflects the majority of people in your congregation – that does not reflect the society we live in, and a lot of people are slipping through the cracks – either because they do not feel welcome, or wouldn’t know how to participate even if they did. Thankfully, many churches are designed to welcome new people (and consider themselves friendly), but these communities are really only ready to welcome people who are already church people, willing to serve on boards and committees, and have a vested interest in caring for budgets, property and either maintaining or adding additional staff and programs. Many churches are designed around Sunday morning activities: worship services, Bible classes for multiple ages, small groups and coffee hours. Sunday remains church day for many of us. Yet many families are stretched to the max, have other Sunday activities and commitments that are competing against our church schedules, and could really use a day/morning/hour/five minutes to catch their breath. (Remember Sabbath? Sometimes I think churches only add to the noise.) None of these things are bad or evil, but these structures, priorities and opportunities reflect a different era where many people no longer live. I had a funny conversation with a friend of mine about a year ago centering on his sister who was upset that track and field practice was scheduled for Sunday morning and she was having a hard time figuring out how to get her family to church as a result. Before you shake your head and say, “That is secular New England, you should expect that,” I’ll tell you this was at a Catholic High School in Wisconsin. There is nothing sacred anymore about Sunday mornings in our culture. We probably won’t change Sundays from being our primary day, but we need to keep in mind how challenging it can be for our own people to participate (and we haven’t even started thinking about new people yet). It should not surprise anyone that there are simply fewer people available to keep the model we have inherited going – even as the national population rises. We have to throw out our assumptions and find a new base line.
2. We have to stop equating church with either God or faith.
Church as we know it runs as a human institution that we hope points to God and nurtures faith, but church is not the same thing as God or faith. Think about what this means – success or failure is not a reflection on God or the strength of the faith of believers. Some activities either work or don’t – and there are insights to glean from both experiences as we plan what to do next. It also means that people’s declining interest and participation in church is not necessarily a lack of interest in God, faith or spirituality, but could be a reflection on how it is currently packaged. Terms like “spiritual but not religious”, “nones” (referring to people’s self-selected religious affiliation) and “dones” (those who have shared they are “done” with church) are reflections of a growing frontier in American religious life. The question for churches to grapple with today is whether or not they want to be part of the conversation taking place out on this frontier or remain inside as the world moves on without them.
3. The good news of Jesus is as relevant and as needed as ever.
People are struggling, suffering, oppressed, impoverished, searching for meaning in all kinds of physical, emotional and spiritual ways. We have much to contribute to that conversation (words to speak and a way to live rooted in mercy, love, gratitude and grace which is meant to be shared with others). The world could use good news. If we can hold on to this truth with clarity, then “How do we do church today?” comes from a different place and focus. Jurgen Moltmann’s insight: “It’s not the church that has a mission, but God’s mission who has a church” can continue to guide what questions we ask as we try new things and trust the rest is in God’s hands.
My “Something New”
I’ve decided that this year I’m going to stop trying to reform the church on my own (or even in a group). Instead, I will habitually make, “Your will be done” my ongoing prayer. I’ll still work hard, do my best, and remain accountable (I’m not suggesting otherwise). But I am also going to stop reacting to “something new” as if it all depends on me. Rather, my hope is to be able to discern God’s movement by observing, listening, and discerning with others as best I can and then act accordingly.
Martin Luther points out so expertly in the Small Catechism, “God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.”
May it be so, as God does “something new” among us.
“See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5a)