Bob Dylan, way back in the mid-1960s—sang about the times changing. Another person once said that if you were not big enough to change the times, then you needed to change with the times. Well, within the so-called “church” today, the times are changing and, not too many people are embracing that change . . . at least not from the inside of the “church”. The result? Lots of dust on the pews.
I have served as an ordain minister in a mainline denomination for 30 years now. In those 30 years I have seen a lot of changes . . . some good, some not so good . . . and, I am still in the “church”. In retrospect, those changes through the years were not really significant; but, the changes today are big. The church is growing . . . it is transforming . . . it is becoming something that is making people uncomfortable, especially those who have grown use to the way that things have always been. It is a scary time in the “church”.
Statistics from research show the decline in the so-called “traditional” church . . . show that people are show their unhappiness with the “traditional” church by not showing up . . . the dust is collecting on the pews. The media has forecasted the demise of the “church” as it has always been known. The “church” of our parents and grandparents is fading, but to what . . . no one is certain about yet. With no past to lean upon, and no clear cut future defined . . . well, it kind of makes people nervous and scared.
Unfortunately, people are not honest. People are not honest about what they are really feeling. Instead of being honest about what they are feeling, they dig in, become combative, and harp on the fact that “we never did it that way before.” The end result? Combative, fractured, and dying congregations scraping by to make it to the next Sunday worship service. As humans, we have a tendency—for good or bad—to hang onto that which is familiar. Good or bad, when it is familiar, at least we know what to expect. This change in the “church” that is growing is not something familiar . . . it is new, different, and scary.
Or is it?
Is this so-called transformation really something new and different? Or, is it something that has finally come to fruition? Has finally come into the form that it was always intended to be? I tend to think that it is more of the latter—no something new and different. In the beginning of what was called “the Way” the followers of Jesus did not see themselves as sharing something new and different, but the fulfillment of what God intended from the very beginning. Jesus, himself, stated that he did not come to get rid of the old, but to show how it was meant to be lived. Those earlier followers saw themselves as sharing the final form of what they already were . . . not something new, but something complete. It was not new, but a model of how it was meant to be from the very beginning. I think that is where this transformation is coming from . . . not something new, but what it is supposed to be.
Of course, those are fighting words with those firmly entrenched in the so-called traditional view of the “church”. Fighting words because that means that they were wrong. Again, I disagree. I do not think that the so-called traditional “church” got it wrong . . . far from it. I think that the traditional “church” was just a part of the growing phase . . . just a part of the journey. The traditional “church” is a part of the journey . . . a part of the plan . . . it was never meant to be the final destination. The argument comes in whether or not it was the final form . . . final destination. In those terms, I probably would be combative too. The fact is, even this new transformation of the “church” is probably not the final destination or form . . . but, I do think it is getting closer. I imagine that if another reformation happens, it will be the transformation group that is up in arms with the new kid on the block.
Some people are in the thick of the change . . . fighting for what once was. Some people are in the thick of the change . . . fighting for what could be. And, the most—I think—are just stepping away from it all, declaring themselves to be spiritual, not religious, and waiting. Waiting for the dust to clear. In the meantime, the dust collects on the pews. The bottom line is that it is killing the “church” . . . at least the “church” as most of us practice it. In my mind, the race is on to see whether the “church” will even be there by the time I retire. With the I.R.S.’s help that should be about another 20 years. I guess time will tell.
As the season of Pentecost begins, we are reminded of the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the means of communication and collaboration with God and God’s will. It is not a quick zap of knowledge and truth that is once and for all . . . it is a process of growth into what created us to be. So, why we act as God only spoke God’s will to one generation and all the other generations are S.O.L.? Is that not to limit God and God’s will?
I say, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s follow the Spirit through the acts of prayer and discernment. Let us pray to understand God’s will. Let us discern, through conversation, through research, through experience, what God’s will is. As someone once said, “If it is God’s will, so be it . . . if not, so be it.” The state of the “church” today leaves lots of room for the discussion of God’s will for this time and place. With all of the upheaval it would make one think that at least we need to consider what it all means. That takes prayer and discernment . . . gifts of the Spirit. That is where we have to begin. If we are honest and open about our fears, willing to sit down and discuss, and open to the possibilities . . . well, maybe we can begin to get rid of that dust on the pews. Then, again, we’ve never done it that way before . . . but, there is always hope.