Day 32 Wednesday, August 10 Loveland, CO Rest Day 0 miles
Having a day when I am not on the bike and not having to pick up and move once again gives me some time for reflection. I have had some ideas floating around my head for many weeks about the state of the Church and the increasing shift in America from religion to spirituality. This morning I and Dave’s parents, with whom I am having the pleasure to get reacquainted, had a good discussion about the Presbyterian Church and the current family squabble we find ourselves in.
Just to catch you up, our national body just approved a resolution to drop the language that barred us from ordaining practicing gay and lesbian persons as well as non-celibate singles. Some churches are leaving the denomination. Members are leaving individual churches. A significant bloc of churches are having meetings to create non-geographical presbyteries more in line with their theology. And, of course, much of the Church heaved a huge sigh of relief after patiently working 30 years for a “non-discriminatory” church. My daughter is lesbian so you can imagine how important this was to me as well.
My discussion with Dave’s parents just confirmed for me what I first began hearing 25 years ago. I remember being stunned in 1986 just before entering seminary when then General Assembly moderator, the Rev. John Fife, said that what the Church is going through now will absolutely dwarf the Protestant Reformation. Since then numerous books have been written along the same lines. Among them are Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence and Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of the Faith. Tickle says we are in a once every 500 year shift. Think of 500 year floods and you’ll get the picture. Cox thinks we are ending a 1500-year “Age of Belief” and moving into something he calls the “Age of the Spirit”.
If we indeed we are living in a time of great transition and if this is a sort of extended interim period between religious epochs, I wonder if we can’t simply acknowledge that and structure our religious communities to reflect the reality of this shifting time. In the Presbyterian Church we have a protocol when a church is between permanently called ministers. Generally, we hire an interim minister whose role is to help the congregation negotiate this transitional time. He works on issues of identity and mission. She will help the congregation assess both the gifts and the difficulties from the last pastorate. A healthy congregation will take advantage of this time to be clear about who they are, where they fit in the community, and discern what their vision is for the future. It is a time of listening, discernment and dialogue among members of the congregation. Generally this period will last anywhere from 12-24 months.
If theologians, historians, and sociologists are correct, the religious and spiritual world is in the middle of a seismic transitional time. Except, instead of this period lasting one, two or three years, prognosticators say paradigm shifts like this generally last 100-150 years. So I wonder, if this is the case, could we actually organize our religious life to reflect this? We do it between two permanently called pastors. Could we also do it between worldwide religious paradigm shifts?
We have been struggling trying to restore our churches and our place in the community to the “golden age” when Sunday Schools were full and the question was not IF you go to church, but WHERE you go to church. We have been stymied by the increasing numbers of young people who first left the church as they reached adulthood, to those who never went to church, and now those for whom church is almost completely irrelevant to their lives. At the same time we are witnessing the exponential growth in the sales of books on religion and spirituality. Retreat centers that offer meditation, life coaching, spiritual direction, and personal and relational healing are on the rise. I finding people on my pilgrimage very comfortable in their new spiritual, non-religious skin.
Indeed, we are living in an interim time. I sometimes think of this as the “Great In-Between”playing off of Phyllis Tickle’s title The Great Emergence. What if we just acknowledged that the church of the future is not going to be a mirror image of the church of the golden age? The world has changed and the old forms simply don’t serve our communities well and honor the needs and questions of our time. At the same time, what if we weren’t so apologetic about our own faith tradition and the meaning it has brought to our communities and families? That tradition formed us and made us who we are and we should wear our tradition with pride. What if the church simply acknowledged that we are in a monumental interim time and the best gift we can offer is to become a safe place for people to ask the questions, enter into dialogue, and make sense of our new awareness about other faith traditions, emerging spiritualities and thoughtful contemporary theologies?
It seems we often think we have only two choices. We either try to protect and preserve our tradition despite the changes in our community and the world. Or we decide that the world has moved on and we have to move on with it abandoning our cherished values and religious life. What if the third way is to honor our own tradition AND make room for the diversity of existing and emerging religious and spiritual traditions.
My point is this. We seem to be working overtime to find the right answer or the one answer to restore our churches to their once reputable place in the community. If this truly is an interim time, restoration is not the goal. Listening, dialogue, discernment, conversation, and deeper awareness are the goals. We seem to be comfortable with the idea of interim ministers to act as the bridge between one permanent pastor and another. Maybe we need to take our Presbyterian polity one step further. Maybe we also need interim churches to act as the bridge between an old world that is passing away and a new world that has not yet emerged.
What shall we call it? The Church of Uncertainty? The Church of Ambiguity? The Church of the Already and Not Yet? Catchy, huh! The truth is we are all members of that church already. We just haven’t admitted it and learned to accept it with grace.
Mel, Dave’s dad, asked me, “Brian, what are we going to do? The conservative churches are abandoning our denomination and the young people just aren’t coming.” My answer is simple, “Let go and trust…this is bigger than us and we are just along for an epochal theological roller coaster ride!” Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!