“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost.” These words are the first lines of the movie the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, but they have resonated with me these last few weeks as I talk to ministers and laity alike. Most people feel it deeply: what once was in the church is no more. As we stand staring into an uncertain future, we can either face this new world with fear and trembling or with the excitement that God is doing something new.
As we stand staring into an uncertain future, here are a couple of things I believe congregations can do now that can help lead into God’s new call for your congregation.
1. Find natural ways to discern together.
How does your church make decisions? I am talking about decisions about identity or call. Big decisions that come from deep conversations. How do you discern together where God is leading your church? Each congregation is different, so each process will be different. Now more than ever it is important for congregations to find a structure that works for your unique setting.
In my experience, churches that find a good structure starts small. Finding the right starting point for discussion can create a natural rhythm for your church when larger conversations are needed. Diving headfirst into difficult topics often splits the church, partly because churches are forced into these discussions and have no solid structure to lean on to foster healthy conversations.
If you can find structures that help your church discern together, then when big issues come up, you are already set in terms of activating your communication system. With these structures in place, you have a trusted process people will enter and feel that they will be heard. The loudest voices will not overload the system and a real sense of discernment might be found.
2. Think through your language
When your church sign says “Everyone is welcome” but your business meeting says “but not them,” your church has a language problem. Most local congregations use phrases that sound good in theory but do not stand up to practical application.
So, what do we do? I would suggest that we add humility to our language. This may make our language a little less flowery but will add depth and show that your congregation really is on a journey. Instead of saying, “All are welcome,” we might say “We are a congregation that strives to create a space where all feel welcome.” This small change adds space for dialogue and discovery. This change says “we are trying, but we have not arrived.”
Language is so important. Younger generations are calling out the church for saying one thing and doing the other. When our language shows humility, we create a culture that models for younger Christians that faith is hard, especially when lived out in the real world.
What if we were able to speak with more humility about our own lives, to share our struggles and be a more genuine community? We have no idea the issues people are dealing with in our pews. Humility in language provides a safer space for people dealing with complex problems to feel more comfortable, knowing that those standing behind the pulpit leading are not leading perfect lives themselves. Humility in language breaks down the wall between the pews and the stage, leading to deeper relationships and more authentic community.
3. Listen to your young leaders
Listen to what your young leaders have to say…and if you do not have young leaders, take the time to build up the youth and college students in your midst to become those leaders. More and more churches are asking “How do we reach young people?” While there are plenty of older people, like me, who have good ideas, actually listening to those you are trying to reach is the best way to move forward.
Heed this warning, though. If we do really listen to our younger Christians, change is coming. Younger Christians want what they hear from the pulpit to speak prophetically to what they are dealing with outside the church. If your congregation doesn’t want to talk about race, sexuality and other hot button issues, then perhaps you do not really want to reach young people.
Expecting young Christians to walk through the front doors of your church without expecting to change the way you do things is neither practical nor real. If we know that change needs to happen in our churches, start by having conversations with your younger Christians and let them be part of shaping the change that you want to see. Empower your young leaders and pass them the microphone. God has given them a powerful word to share.
4. Take chances.
It is past time for the church to start taking chances. I am fully aware that most people do not like change. I am also aware that many see church as an “escape” from the real world. However, we must realize that in a rapidly changing world, God is calling us to step up and respond by being relevant in the world. You may lose members, your budgets may shrink, but God may be calling you into a new space, ripe with new possibilities.
A question I often ask ministers is this: do you want your church to continue on its current trajectory? For most, the answer is no. If the answer is no, then why continue doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result? I believe this is Einstein’s definition of insanity.
Churches that take chances can talk about issues of the day, issues that your younger people are wanting to talk about. Churches that take chances can help create real change in the real world. Yes, there is risk. Anything that is worth doing requires taking a risk!
5. Find ways to take care of one another.
Laity. If your pastor takes good care of you, take good care of them. It seems like every day I log onto social media to see another minister announce they are leaving the ministry. The main two culprits seem to be exhaustion and frustration with a church that refuses to change.
While it is harder to deal with the second issue, the first one is a bit easier to help with. Make sure your minister is taking his/her vacation days. Let your pastor know that if they work extra hours at night, it is fine to take time off during the day. Trust your minister. Make sure your church has a sabbatical policy and let your ministers be open about when they need a couple days of rest.
I know that there are so many issues that are happening in the church that a single blog will only help people consider the tip of the iceberg. In your unique context there are deep issues that may hinder you from moving forward. How do you access these issues, how do you confront these issues, how do make change?
These are hard questions that we must ask at this critical junction of our life together. Please know we are here to help. CBFVA is eager to help connect your congregation and your staff to the right coach or peer group within the CBF network. Know that we are here to help guide you through your own discovery process. This is a journey. May God bless you as you go.