Cultural Change

Dr. Maggi, who I appreciate more and more each day, posted this morning a reponse to Rob’s analysis of the differences in the UK and US church. Her response resonates with some things that have been going on in my ministry and my life. I especially like her last paragraph:

There are, of course, people in Denominational positions such as Bishop, Archdeacon, etc, who wouldn’t label themselves as Emergent. But I know a number of these guys in person, and we have a lot more in common than you might think. Part of the reality here is that response to cultural change will inevitably involve closing down parts of the Church structure that are dying or no longer relevant. However, it takes some time and thought to be sure you shut down the right things at the right time. To shut things down overnight might appeal to the young radicals in our midst, but it’s not the way of Jesus. To deliver structural change with grace, love and dignity takes time, effort and wisdom. There are many, many people who know and experience God (yes, that’s the same God we worship) within these somewhat anachronistic structures. It is not for us to shut off their life-support system; we may need to scale down some operations, but we need to do so without sacrificing lives.

The reality for many of us is that we haven’t learned or been given the gift of patience. While Maggi suggests that the American inclination from our frontier days is to move on and start something new (again, and again, and again). I think that analysis is correct, but I want to add that the American form of consumerism adds to that dynamic. You see we want everything instantaneously. We are the culture of the drive-through window, instant tea, immediate gratification. Most of us that are baby-boomers or younger have never been raised to understand what it means to invest time for gradual change. Our economic culture is based on short term effects on a stock, not the long term potential of a company.

Those of us in the church have a short attention span as well. How many times have I heard of youth ministers being hired and then fired six months or a year after they came because they hadn’t “turned the program around.” In my own church there is at times an unspoken expectation that I have the power to transform a culture that is suffering from many wounds and change it into a thriving and vital congregation in a year’s time. Sure, there are one or two examples of dynamic leaders who were able to effect rapid change and growth. Yet, all of the “success” stories of the American church, the Willow Creeks or Saddlebacks or Church of the Resurrection in my denomination, were new church plants that could create new structures and cultures.

That is why friends like Doug and Tony suggest that denominations are dead, that the future of the church is in new church plants. There are times when I long for starting from scratch and influencing a culture of community. Yet, is this a faithful response that honors those who have gone before? Frankly, there are many things we need to learn from these saints about life together, understanding that the world has changed but that history is always important.

Change is hard. My congregation is filled with wonderfully faithful people who were unwilling to give up when lots of others were jumping ship. We have lots of wounds — self inflicted, pastor inflicted, structure inflicted. We have hope in our future, but those wounds take time to heal. Trust has to be rebuilt. Faith has to be rekindled. Energy has to be renourished. It’s a slow process, and it’s easy for folks like myself with short attention spans to give up and say “to heck with this.”

Yet, then I remember the story of faith. There were so many times when God should have given up, so many times when God should have said “to hell with all of them” and wiped us out. But God didn’t. The story of faith, what Brian called “The Story We Find Ourselves In,” is a story of God being patient and having hope for us that change is gonna come. How then can we give up on what God has created in the past and say that it is no longer worth having?

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