Over the last 30 days I have attended four Association meetings, the Kindle event, the 25 to Life banquet, about a dozen church board meetings, plus Pastors’ breakfasts and individual meetings with pastors, and a regional Trustees meeting. Much good is happening. I do see the Holy Spirit working in new ways in many churches. Yet, juxtaposed to this, there is a wave of pastoral discouragement. Maybe grief is not too strong a word to describe what many pastors are feeling. I also see grief and anxiety in church leadership, where there are struggles to understand why “things don’t work anymore.” Social scientists and family therapists talk about “systems” wanting to return to old equilibriums. But I worry that local churches sometimes search for a path forward which is, in fact, only the reclaiming of a recent past, still within the memories of decision makers. Often pastors, who rightly grasp the future, are worn down leading between two worlds. If I can steal a phrase from Leonard Sweet, the “Soul Salsa” is a dance that consumes energy and emotion.
When I was still an active pastor, I remember struggling to serve three distinct generations on Sunday morning. Then on Sunday afternoon, I would be in a Dartmouth lecture hall with 75 or so International students for worship. I totally lost track of how many cultures I interacted with on a Sunday. But these different generations and cultures were contained in two church bodies that occasionally overlapped during a winter or summer college break. The new challenge is what happens when three or four generations do not exist under the same roof. What if only one generation, or generational culture is represented? For many ABC churches there is question of, “Where did the young people go?” Or, “Why are all these young people across town at that new church?” And the next question is usually, “How do we attract more young people?” I believe such questions stem from the realization that the demographic trajectory does not favor a particular church’s future. Lyle Schaller used to speak of “self-identified discrepancies.” Maybe it is the discrepancies that discourage pastors and grieve congregations. When all the discrepancies, worry, and dysfunctions are calculated, a sense of futility oppresses us.
What happens now? There are a number of practical responses which could include: new programs or structural, financial or missional initiatives. I believe these are good, and it is evident the Holy Spirit works in these things. But grappling with the future, can and does, impact the soul because we are finite, limited, and fallen human beings, yet created in God’s image. The state of the soul is foundational to the mission. It is from the soul’s condition that witness for Christ, reflection of God’s character, and the motivation for a faithful holy life arises. As Jesus said, it is not what goes into our mouth that defiles us, but that which comes from our hearts. When we are in discouragement and grief, the deeper places of the soul are where we retreat to be with Christ and rest in His love and holiness. When the prevailing winds look like they will overwhelm me, I know I can trust God, even when I don’t understand all that is around me. When answers about the future are not readily at hand, and possible pathways look downright impossible, I know the risen Christ has led His Church through tumultuous times century after century. As St. Patrick left Ireland to re-evangelize and disciple Britain and Europe, I pray I can have the same kind of trust and courage serving in a post-Christendom western society. In the deepest places of my soul, God’s love and holiness remind me I am neither alone or abandoned.
Lately I have been trying to get back in touch with contemporary Christian music. A few weeks ago, I embarrassed myself by referring to “10,000 Reasons” as being a “new song”. Younger people pointed out to me is was written way back in 2011 (although I think of 2011 as not being so long ago). So, I have been catching up. Have you heard the song “Oceans”? In the midst of discouragement and grief the song’s refrain, (I think it is a refrain), speaks to my heart so clearly: “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders. Let me walk upon the waters. Wherever you may call me.” Recently after some difficult church meetings, I find “Oceans” playing through my mind. And when I think of discouraged pastors and disoriented, grieving churches, I wonder what “trust without borders” looks like? I pray such trust can form my soul.
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