It’s summer, so I’ll start with a summertime example of learning new things.
My oldest son installed an above-ground swimming pool. I helped. That meant learning how to drive a Bobcat – way cool! as they say – dealing with a sinkhole, figuring out how to create a level space 16 feet wide and 24 feet long, and erecting the frame and pool liner.
Every one of these steps was new to me. More lay ahead. I’ve never spent one minute maintaining a pool. Now I am helping my wife measure pH level, add salt, manage the pump and filter, and apply chlorine shock.
But how else were we going to enjoy the fun of swimming, water aerobics and, most especially, floating idly in a raft with my granddaughter sitting on me and laughing?
This story applies directly to churches. When I work with church leaders, I see good hearts, good minds, a palpable eagerness to escape five decades of downward spiral, and fervent hope for a solid future. Church members should be thankful that they have such capable and enthusiastic leaders.
The breakdown always seems to come with new things. There is a deep-seated resistance to change and a strong fear of new ideas and new methods. It’s no one thing, just an emotional bias against newness.
Besides, some say, haven’t we done enough? We opened the door to women in leadership. We lowered barriers based on sexuality. We updated our music and liturgies. Many made serious efforts toward racial balance.
Yes, we did all that. But our churches kept spiraling downward. And the world whose leaven we are supposed to be kept spiraling into violence, intolerance, greed, and self-destruction. Our children and grandchildren seem distant from the faith.
Problem is – and I say this as an advocate for the changes we made – we did the easy changes. We opened the door to our women – our wives, daughters and granddaughters – but we did far less for all women, especially poor women, abused women, immigrant women, uneducated women. Having a woman serving at the altar doesn’t stop the boss from being a sexual predator at a low-paying job that a single parent can’t afford to lose.
Same with the changes we made on sexuality and race: they benefited our people, but didn’t stop bullying and intolerance beyond our walls.
We didn’t preach truth to power. We didn’t say to our wealthy friends what Jesus said to his. We perpetuated a lifestyle that affirms wealth. We managed our spending and fund-raising to avoid making a serious stewardship challenge to our wealthy constituents.
We spend lavishly on facilities because they please us – and we don’t see that they mean little to the people we must try to reach.
The path forward is clearly marked: reach beyond our walls, communicate more aggressively, stop relying on Sunday worship, encourage clergy to be entrepreneurs and not chaplains, form small groups, turn our funds to mission work, seek to change people’s lives. Many congregations are trying it. But it’s like installing a swimming pool. Everything is new, and the new things that need to be done now are the hard ones.
The work starts with asking the right question on each thing we do: is this still the best way? Is there a better way? Where do we learn how?
The payoff will be great. But first you have to do new things.
About the Author
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns. His website is Church Wellness – Morning Walk Media