Blog Series: “Lost In Translation”
Using Paul’s engagement with the Athenians in Acts 17 as a backdrop, we are reflecting on the many gaps, disconnections, and misalignments we see across the landscape of ministry, along with some hopeful and constructive suggestions for how to respond faithfully.
For people who have heard, believed, and sought to show and share the Gospel – the Good News – we (Christians, ministry leaders, churches…) seem to spend an awful lot of time, energy, and stress on bad news, particularly concerning the mainline and/or institutional church.
Growing numbers of clergy are leaving ministry. Growing numbers of laity are leaving congregations. The sky is falling. We have all seen it, experienced it, heard it, expressed it, or read about it – even if our particular congregations and communities are thriving. Countless blogs, articles, and reports have raised the alarm. And countless products, programs, and people have peddled fixes.
No one has ever accused me of being overly positive or optimistic, but I am convinced that God loves the Church and is at work, redeeming and recreating, in this new and challenging time. So, I wonder if there are not only lessons to learn, but also opportunities to embrace, in this time of “crisis.” Where is the good news here?
The parallel departures of those leaving both the pulpits and the pews need to be named and addressed, but also explored. Two recent and related articles, The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church and Why So Many Americans Have Stopped Going to Church describe how American society needs to be studied in order to understand what is happening in/to our churches. In a nutshell, we have embraced a religion of “workism” where what we do, rather than who we are, gives us identity, purpose, and a sense of worth. In reality, ‘living to work’ more often leads to loneliness, anxiety, and isolation. And for those who are ‘working to live,’ there is a never-ending cycle of exhaustion and stress. The result is an unhealthy and unhappy population with little room for anything additional or optional. And church is often seen as additional or optional, when it should be recognized as offering an alternative way of life; a balm for what ails us and our world.
If the structure and function of our churches merely reflect the culture of productivity, busyness, and accomplishment, then we should expect to see an uninspired laity and burned-out clergy. For too long we have existed with a marketplace mindset, seeing other churches and clergy as competition, marketing our products and opportunities as better – or more convenient – than others’, using only quantitative metrics of success, seeking status and influence and market share, believing there is some kind of clergy ladder… If we continue to play this game, we will continue to struggle to “compete” in society. The good news is that everyone wants and needs a better way.
In their book, The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham draw on research by political scientists Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe. They recognize that people are in need and in search of deeper, meaning-making experiences and communities. And they raise the possibility that churches need to ask more – not less – of their people. Not more to-dos that simply add to the burdens everyone already carries. More as in deeper, richer, purposeful engagement. More of a missional mindset. More true and supportive community. More countercultural and meaningful living. More abundant life.
Clergy and laity want and need the same thing – purpose and meaning. Interestingly, even the secular world is starting to recognize the importance of this. A recent article, Psychotherapist shares the No.1 rule highly successful people follow to be happier at work: “it’s a non-negotiable,” references research showing that people are “happier” when they believe that they and their work matters, effects positive change, and serves others or a greater good. Furthermore, they are then more connected, resilient, engaged, and motivated.
Acts 17 is (among many other things) an account of people who lived with such great conviction and purpose, that they were compelled to share the Gospel, and were acutely aware of the context and culture of their place and community. The church must do the same. What does the Gospel have to say to a weary, anxious, isolated people who feel overwhelmed, unsupported, and unsatisfied? How can the church respond to a society that is desperately in need of rest, community, encouragement, acceptance, and significance? How can clergy lay down a building block of the institution and reclaim their call and commission to minister? How can the church free up its leadership to focus on Kingdom work?
In The Great Emergence: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters, Phyllis Tickle claimed that the church is due for a reformation. She recognized that, “religion, whether we like it or not, is intimately tied to the culture in which it exists” and “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale… we are living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales.”
It’s time to sort things out. Our churches are full of things we don’t need, things that are taking up precious space and time, things that no longer work nor are relevant… things that we don’t even know how they got there! And in our sorting, we will rediscover hidden treasures that need to be dusted off and put front and center again. For all of our sakes. And for God’s glory.