May 23, 2021
For this series “The New Normal”, I’ve been largely preaching from Gil Rendle’s book Quietly Courageous, Leading the church in a changing world. He talks about the new normal. Not in a post-pandemic sense; but in a larger sense.
The church is coming out of the aberrant time. The largest growing religion in the U.S. is “the nones.” Not “the nuns” of sisters in habits, but the N-O-N-E-S, the nothings, the no religion folk. It’s hard to hear the difference sometimes.
Before WWII, the average rate of church attendance was around 20% or so but then from around 1945 to the 1970s that rate jumped to 60%. Now it’s going back to “normal.” What many of us consider normal of just putting up a steeple and 50 people show up for church is gone. It wasn’t normal in the first place, it never happened before and might not happen again.
But all is not lost. I found you, church. I wasn’t even looking for you. It was Kate who dragged me to your doors and I’m ruined. I found myself. I found gifts I didn’t even know I had. So here I am. For some of you that’s a really good thing and for others the jury is still out… that’s fine.
But I hear this time and time again with my work on the Committee on Discernment Team for our association. What we do on that team is take people going to seminary and help them discern their call. For some, they will become parish pastors or chaplains. For others, they might not need that and we get to help each person articulate that sense of call and direction. Time and time, I hear the same thing over and over again.
“I didn’t’ know church could be like this.”
Yeah. I had no idea. Where were you hiding all my life?! I want this for my children and their children’s children, and for all people who would jive with our vibe.
Speaking of children, we’re gonna have to change and evolve for the aberrant time is ending. I found you in my 20s. This is rare. Most leave when they hit high school and we don’t see them again until they have children of their own in their late 20s or 30s. We can include our children and it’s pretty easy.
Jeff Miller, our new financial director and I were having a discussion about the position of the church and it’s possible futures. It was a great strategy session. I have been feeling tired. If you haven’t taken a break from January to June, may this be your permission to do so. I felt inspired and my energy coming back around church. It was a great conversation. Then Eve comes it.
She walks from Claggett every day to our doors with Leah Medley. She plops down her 15 pound bookbag and says, “What are you talking about?”
“Church” I said.
“Church! Church is boring!”
“Well… how would you make it not boring?” I asked. Secretly seething that my work could be considered boring… but whatever. Eve gets out her computer and starts typing away. Well, I guess I lost her to YouTube. Jeff and I resume our conversation until Eve turns her laptop and says, “There.”
“There? What is this? What am I looking at?” I ask.
“Ways to for church not to be boring.”
Jeff and I look at each other. And it was Jeff who took her up and celebrated her work. “This is great! Maybe you could send it to your friends and see what they have to say?”
“Already did,” Eve says. “Oh, and here’s Katherine Johns saying she wants to be in the choir.”
I was flabbergasted. Why didn’t I think of this before? Why wouldn’t we want to teach our children how to turn their dreams into a reality? There’s no greater feeling than that. We could be that safe place where they can try and fail and try again.
And there’s a chart for this! You might not have known you were being graded on a bell curve, church, but you have been. As have all human organizations that we have a name for. This chart is the life cycle of a church. This is in Gil Rendle’s book and this particular one came from the Rev. Michael Piazza’s presentation at our Vitality Days a few years back.
There are 4 letters. E is energy. I is inclusion. P is program. And A is Administration.
At the beginning, someone has a lot of energy around a topic. Maybe it’s the guy who has this idea that we can teach young men good citizenship and outdoor skills. Maybe it’s a guy who thinks he can make a superior vacuum, made right here in Ohio and provide jobs, to have clean carpets and floors all over the nation. Others get excited about this. So the guy with the Energy starts to Include others. Shareholders and investors come along. And then we get over the Line of Sustainability, and that’s where Program comes in.
Program is how we sustain the Energy and solidify how we Include. Programs are things like the Boy Scout Handbook being developed with the various ranks and merit badges. Programs are things like the assembly lines at the Hoover plant to make the vacuums. People are still really excited about the program or product, so it starts running over the competition. The Boy Scouts become a national thing. Hoover Vacuums are simply the best.
Then Administration comes in and we’re firing on all cylinders. It’s only a 4-cylinder car engine, why, I don’t know but we’ll just leave that joke to die and say that this is really good. You need all 4 for a stable and healthy program. But you can’t stay on top all the time. Sooner or later, the energy and inclusion drop out, and Program and Administration get in the drivers seat.
It’s understandable that this would happen. We’re mostly water. Water takes the easiest way every time. And we do, too. We become risk adverse. We get prideful and feel that what we offer is the best, why change? And there’s a lot of reasons not to change because we know how to do what we do and it’s working.
It can be hard to figure out when we hit the decline, but I think it’s when we start getting defensive around questions. “Why do you do it this way?” CAUSE THAT’S HOW IT’S DONE! Could we try it this way? NO! IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE THIS WAY!
So when girls come knocking because they want join and learn how to be good citizens and learn about nature, which by the way would make sense to include them because good citizens and nature shouldn’t be a gendered thing… but the Boy Scouts said, “No. Go away. We only form Boys into Scouts.”
Or when a guy comes knocking at the Hoover plant and says, “I got this great idea for a bagless vacuum that is actually more powerful and longer lasting.” Hoover says, “No! 80% of our margin is in bag sales. And we would have to reconfigure our labor, manufacturing, and supply lines. We don’t have to change. We’re doing fine, Mr. Dyson, but thank you for visiting.”
We now know how that story ends. The Hoover plant in Kate’s hometown of North Canton sits empty and Dyson keeps coming out with new and innovative products.
This isn’t to disparage Hoover or the Boy Scouts. I was a Boy Scout myself and I’m a Cub Scout Den Leader for Sam. I made Life Scout, just one under Eagle, until the ‘fumes hit: the car fumes and perfumes. I didn’t have the focus of my nephews who made Eagle or the many young men in our congregation who have earned that hallowed rank. I love the Boy Scouts but the moment they announced that they would finally allow girls into the organization, I knew right where they were on the bell curve.
They didn’t change the energy. We still struggle to recruit, there’s just no energy. The program is literally the same when I was in Scouts. Administration is still in the driver seat, but as a last-ditch effort, organizations then decide to let in all those who were knocking at their doors when they were at the top of their game. But after being told “no” year-after-year, those groups aren’t interested.
And the very last thing a church will do before it closes its doors forever is hold a business meeting to close the books and not a worship service. Administration is a necessary thing to have, but it can’t be anywhere near the driver’s seat.
How do we break this curve? How can we interrupt it? We infuse the curve with new Energy and Inclusion. We invite folks like Eve to add her voice and perspective to what we do, and then we help her do it. We change and evolve with the Energy and Inclusion. We try, and fail and learn and try again.
This is forgotten and neglected work of the Holy Spirit. It’s messy and creative work. It’s also really, really exciting. This is lifegiving work of the global church. On the first Pentecost, people from everywhere understood what the disciples were talking about. They got the message in their own tongue! They were thunderstruck! But some scoffed and said, “They are filled with a new wine.”
And some will think we’re crazy. Watching movies in church?! Playing that song in church?! Having a 12 year old help you with the direction of the church? YEAH! Why not?! She’s the future of the church and I want her and her children’s children to be here, God willing.
This is the original vision anyway. From the days of the Prophet Joel the vision is that “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. You sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams.”
This is the Spirits work and everyone is needed! If you’re feeling old and tired, these conversations can feel idealistic. Or simplistic. Sure. But we need your knowledge to say, “Well, don’t touch that three-leafed plant cause you’ll be itchy.” Or to say, “You need to position the motor like this…” if you’re going with the Scouting metaphor or the Vacuum metaphor. How about we drop those and just talk church?
I was feeling tired and then Eve showed up and inspired me. Inspired is a word which means In-Spirited. The work of the Holy Spirit. My daughter shall prophesy this coming Monday at 4 p.m. you’re welcome to join her and help guide her. Help turn her dreams into a reality. That’s our work. It’s messy, and it will require us to change, but that’s the work anyway.
We’ve been here for 202 years and if we want to be here another 202, this is the path. It’s the way of the Holy Spirit. I firmly believe our best days are ahead of us. Don’t miss it by looking backwards to what was. Don’t let nostalgia cloud your vision because you’ll miss what the Spirit is doing right now, right here.
Look, every single one of the church’s Paul wrote to in his letters no longer has a physical address. Each and every single one of those churches are dead. The church in Corinth, Thessalonica, and Philippa are dead and gone. But their wisdom lives on in us. In that way, they aren’t dead at all. They are still alive and with us for we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses who are urging us to follow the Spirit.
Thanks be to God.
Note on the Cover: The cover art, “Pentecost” is from Ohio Artist, Sharon Durkin Charmley, used with permission by the artist. Check out more of her work at https://sharoncharmley.com/. A donation has been made to one of Sharon’s favorite nonprofits, Remember Nhu, which seeks to end human trafficking through prevention. Read more about it here: https://remembernhu.org/