As my colleagues and I were listening to Phyllis Tickle talk about Emergence, one of our youngest pastors asked this question regarding the suburban congregation she serves:
I’m serving a church of people born into the church as a pastor who was born into the church. So what do I do as the culture is changing and I realize that what used to work doesn’t work anymore? (Note: this is my paraphrase.)
- Keep serving the Church as it is until everybody dies?
- Serve two churches at once: one of those born into it and then start something new that’s emergent?
- Try to transition the born-into church into an emergence church?”
I loved this question.
This is what I spent over twenty years of my life trying to figure out a few years back. My young colleague figured out that This is the Question after being ordained less than a year. May all our young pastors be so adept at reading church culture.
In the throes of relentless sermon preparation, pastoral care, meetings, and administrivia – not to mention random congregational triage – it often takes a retreat to help us recognize the bigger picture. I remember coming back from retreats as a parish pastor having a better sense of where we needed to go. But the challenge was figuring out how to convey that information to others in a way that helped them understand and then shift.
Many of our seminarians and new pastors grew up in large or large-ish congregations that have the capacity to continue Being the Church in ways they have Been the Church for decades before. And now, we see the need for change but we don’t know how to do it precisely because:
- People born into the church are basically content or don’t even realize that church could be different/more inspiring/more fun/more meaningful.
- We are exhausted at the very thought of being the pastor of two churches – one that is content to do what’s familiar and personally comforting and another comprised of people who find church to be unfamiliar, discomfiting and irrelevant.
- Seminary didn’t teach us How to Shift a Congregation into the 21st Century. And even if we are Master Shifters, most of our people don’t want to go there in their heart of hearts.
This is why so many seminarians and young pastors want to start new churches. (They won’t have to deal with people who want their church to grow but don’t want anything to change.) This is also why so many pastors leave professional ministry after less then five years. (They come in all fired up and filled with God’s Spirit but after a few years, they are crestfallen and weary of conversations about Things That Don’t Matter.)
I am so hopeful about The Church of Jesus Christ. As we figure out how to be the Future Church, we are doing what generations of believers have done before us in different contexts and cultures. I’m thankful that it won’t take my young colleague the next 20+ years to figure things out better than I did.
Photo of a toppled steeple in coastal NC we saw on vacation last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. They just don’t want to put it back up. Or they don’t have the money to put it back up. Or maybe they want to get rid of the steeple, but don’t have the heart to toss it. Or maybe they are just paralyzed.