In this time and place, the contexts in which we engage in ministry are undergoing massive change in virtually every regard. Our churches don’t exist in spiritual bubbles and changes within society and culture will, by necessity, change our ministry context. It can’t be avoided. Whether it be shifts in population patterns, the rapid pace of technological change, socio-economic dislocation, changing immigration patterns, generational shifts in spiritual priorities or our 24/7 media culture; we and our ministries are impacted. And it really can’t be otherwise.
As I visit with our synod’s congregations and rostered ministers I am experiencing steadily increasing levels of anxiety and fearfulness among us. A great many of our congregational systems and their leaders are both stressed and distressed. Participation levels are decreasing. Financial capacity is declining. Physical assets are crumbling. A lot of us are afraid that “the ship is going to go down on our watch,” a prospect that interjects a toxic whiff of shame into an atmosphere already chilled by the deadening emissions of our collective fears and anxieties.
In the face of such realities, there is a great need for us to work at rapidly cultivating two character traits - courage and imagination – which, admittedly, are not the first characteristics most of us would identify as being particularly dominant in our present church culture!
The theologian Karl Barth described courage as being “fear that has said its prayers.” Some of the fearfulness we experience is quite understandable. There is much about present circumstances that are scary! That does not mean, however, that fearfulness is an acceptable posture that should be allowed to stand unchallenged. Left unchecked, fear is paralyzing. It can, however, be prayerfully transformed into courage by diving deeper into the well of our tradition’s primary spiritual practices – by “saying its prayers!” Do you live within a too-fearful congregation? If so, I would suggest that you seriously engage Bishop Johnson’s call to Spiritual Renewal. You can learn more about it at this link. http://elcic.ca/csr/default.cfm. My guess is that you will see a significant change in the ratio of fear to courage in your congregation’s life.
I also maintain that these spiritual practices can spark a much needed rejuvenation of our churchly imagination as we seek to renew the nature of our shared discipleship. And do we ever need it! Nineteenth century American clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher once described faith as being “spiritualized imagination.” Faith-filled people are spiritually imaginative. The Scriptures and the pages of church history are rife with countless such testimonies. Think about the Reformation whose 500th Anniversary we are commemorating this year. What an incredibly courageous and imaginative response to the most fearful of times! Conversely, there are as many examples wherein a fearful and anxious people experience a reduction in their capacity to courageously imagine new possibilities and options. Which end of this imagination spectrum is most representative of the churches that you know best?
Here’s the deal, folks. Most of the societal changes that have challenged the status quo of congregational life in the past fifty years are due to forces and circumstances that are well beyond the capacity of any individual Christian or congregation to change or alter. We can’t replicate the 1950’s. But you know what else is true? This has always been the case. Societal and cultural change is a constant that always has and always will be.
Where the church has historically distinguished itself in its engagement of that ever changing context for mission has been in those times and places where it’s been most courageous and imaginative. Our forebears in the 1950’s actually did that and addressed their new post-war context with great courage and imagination; it’s an amazing story! It remains to be seen whether we will similarly distinguish ourselves in this time and place. I suspect that a committed effort toward experiencing renewal in our primary spiritual practices might be a place for us to begin to find that out.