The Opportunity of a Lifetime

Vinyl records are making a big comeback, with over six million sold in 2023. An interesting note: half of all people buying vinyl records don’t own a record player. Why do they buy them? According to several assessments, buyers say they want a “tangible connection” to things that matter, and vinyl offers that in a way streaming does not. Some even said they obtain them as a “holy relic” of the music they care about.

As I’ve noted previously, two of the most sought-after courses at the University of Pennsylvania are “Living Deliberately,” which inducts students into a kind of modern-day monasticism complete with one month of silence and a technology fast, and “Existential Despair,” which meets once weekly for seven hours. The latter instructor says about her course, “this class is not about hope or heroic stories. I’m not worried about their 20-year-old selves, but how they live at my age – with breast cancer, a kid who is addicted, father dying, career not working…so when they are dealing with bigger things in life, they know they are not alone.” Both courses have years-long waiting lists.

Stories about symphonies, theater subscriptions, and fine arts programs suffering from declining participation, accelerated by Covid, are well known. Then there is a civic ballet company in the Midwest. They are actually gaining subscribers – of all ages. How are they doing it? According to one board member, they are working on an intentional connection to their community. They have excellent leadership. They are focused on providing a safe and welcoming environment. And, crucially, they are portraying ballet as story, as narrative.

If space allowed, I could offer a dozen more examples of how people in culture – and not in church – are expressing their spiritual needs. I suspect that each of you could add many more as well. The needs being expressed in our culture are hiding in plain sight:

A need for creative disruption in a life of endless swipes and streams with something more grounded.

In that spirit, a need for connection to something tangible that offers meaning and transcendence.

A need for opportunities to build resilience and hope.

A need to invest in community life.

A need for leadership that is caring and focused, to help the rest of us navigate such an ambiguous and fraught season.

And a need to build a narrative of meaning in every life.

In Christian Wiman’s new book, Zero at the Bone, he writes:

One grows so tired, in American public life of the certitudes and platitudes, the megaphone mouths and stadium praise, influencers and effluencers and the whole tsunami of slop that comes pouring into our lives like toxic sludge.

The folks described in these cultural narratives, who are yearning for something that they may not be able to fully articulate, are probably not attending Sunday worship in your community, but in their behavior lies a quiet assent to Wiman’s description and a poignant yearning for more.

This is a God-given opportunity for every pastor and every congregation that follows Jesus Christ. In countless corners of our culture, people are seeking what, at their best, faith communities offer. Experiences of the transcendent. Creative disruption. Community. Narratives of meaning. Safety. Welcome. Resilience. Hope.

For pastors and congregations wondering what is next or how to plan, we have the opportunity to renew the hope we carry: the joyful news that God heals and saves and welcomes all who are seeking healing and salvation. True, most people are not knocking on doors of churches asking specifically for healing and salvation. Still there is a cry of need in culture for these things. Best of all, God is giving us an unprecedented opportunity to be our best, and to seek those who need to experience God’s love and grace in their lives.

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