By Beau Underwood
There’s a new book out by my friend and yours, Derek Penwell, that every mainline pastor, leader, and member needs to read (note: Derek did not ask me to say this). If our denominations and churches aren’t willing to dream new dreams, think in creative ways, and take a leap of faith in living out the Gospel in today’s context then the handwriting is on the wall regarding our fate.
His analysis and exhortations come at a particularly relevant time, given the release of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory and its report of substantial decline in membership and participation. It is hard to find a silver lining in these troubling trends. I agree with much of Derek’s own commentary about how we should approach this news but let allow me to make one important addition (as Derek clearly does, since this is the blog he edits that I’m writing on):
We might just be close enough to death to witness resurrection
This is the paraphrase of a statement I heard Rev. Bonnie Perry, an Episcopal priest in Chicago, make to a gathering of students during my days at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The idea – in case it isn’t obvious – is that confronting existential crises can often lead to new life. By trying to save or life and protect ourselves we will inevitably die, but by sacrificing ourselves for the sake of something greater we tap into a life far greater than our own (Matthew 16:25).
This is the reality facing the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). If our focus is on stopping the bleeding in terms of attendance numbers and financial giving then we are destiny is sealed. Narcissism, pessimism, and anxiety are not compelling virtues for churches. Being consumed with ourselves only guarantees more of the same. But if we can shift our eyes away from the mess and devastation that is the current reality and imagine a different, more faithful future then our hope for resurrection can begin to replace our fear of institutional death. Specifically that requires:
Casting a vision and telling our story – Congregations unable to articulate their mission or offer a clear identity within a community are doomed. If you cannot express who you are and where you’re going, it is impossible to get others to join you on the journey. Like so many confused teenagers, we have an identity crisis. Modeling faithful discipleship in our contemporary context is an incredible challenge that many of our congregations have simply failed to do well.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Polls looking at spirituality in the United States consistently reveal people hungry for connecting with transcendent realities. People know there is a truth beyond what they create themselves or what shape their individual lives take but finding requires the existence of a viable alternative to existentialism.
Simply put, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) needs to find a story that invites people to discover where they fit within The Story. There are so many people dying to find a different way of life. If we belief Jesus transforms lives then we’ve got to re-commit ourselves to sharing this vision of how the world should be with a world desperate for something other than what is.
Embodying what we profess – If the only problem was helping the spiritual but not religious connect with a community then telling our story and opening our doors would solve all our issues. However, the greater problem is what people find when they walk into our sanctuaries. We’ve often over-promised and under-delivered. People get excited to hear what we profess to be but then discover our actions fail to match our lofty words.
If we dare claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” and a denomination offering true community, deep spirituality, and a commitment to justice then we better be ready to back up our words. Concerns about congregational decline has resulted in an emphasis on church growth with little attention to the community we’re asking people to join. Christian formation – helping people understand that faith is a way of life – are words rarely heard in many of our congregations today. We need a better understanding of what it means to be “Disciples of Christ” and a commitment to embodying that understanding in thought, word and deed.
Recognizing change will not “come from the top” – For the Disciples the whole concept of “the top” is an idea that lacks meaning. We intentionally vested power within congregations, which has been both a blessing and detriment. In theory, this hands off approach should spur innovation and allow for congregations to learn and share with each other in ways that allow all to thrive. Sadly in practice congregational autonomy is often an excuse for ignoring the sage advice of others, unfaithfully refusing to change, and insisting on doing things “our way” even if it means sapping the life of a congregation’s witness. There are many struggling congregations whose plights were entirely avoidable, but they invited their own death by ignoring the changing realities of their contexts and refusing to seek out or listen to the wisdom of others.
We certainly need leadership from the General and Regional Church because this church is strongest when every manifestation is working together. But given the challenges we face, any time those leaders spend on projects or initiatives that are not directly or indirectly related to revitalizing struggling congregations, supporting thriving churches, and starting new communities of worship is a waste we cannot afford. There are luxuries we should no longer indulge because they represent little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship when our leaders need to be bailing water, patching holes, and guiding us to safe harbor.
But blaming denominational leaders for our struggles is an exercise in avoidance. It is far too simple an answer that denies any responsibility we have for changing our behaviors and contributing to solutions. The bottom line is that change has to start in our churches. We need pastors and lay leaders focused on strengthening their communities, preaching the Gospel, and serving God’s people in our contemporary context. There is no panacea that will be emanating from Indianapolis and to expect one is foolish.
In a conversation with a denominational leader whom I greatly respect, I once made the theological mistake of saying “God needs our church.” He quickly corrected me and stated, “God doesn’t need this church. God will have always have a Church wherever the Gospel is preached, compassion is offered, and justice is pursued. But if our church remains faithful to that call then God might not be through with us yet.”
I remain committed The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because we have a distinctive witness that the world desperately needs to hear. The challenges facing us our immense but if we can move past our laments, remember who we are, and embody the faith we profess then I believe the God of Hope still has more ways to use our work than we can possible imagine.
We’re closer to death than we’d care to admit, but I believe in the power of resurrection.
On nights and weekends, Rev. Beau Underwood is the Assistant Pastor at National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Washington, DC. During the week he directs the communications and advocacy at Sojourners.