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Fred Plumer’s Review and Forward for “Crazy Wisdom” by Tom Thresher

For nearly three decades I have been trying to help clergy, faith communities and even denominations find ways to transition their traditional religious institutions into contemporary faith expressions. The hope is they might survive the enormous social changes already happening in the western world. I did not do this to save institutional churches necessarily or even Christianity as most people understand it. I did it, and continue to do so, because I seriously believe genuine faith communities are uniquely positioned to foster a real shift in consciousness the world so desperately needs today. I attempted to do this first by creating a new faith community model as a pastor. Years later I traveled all over the country doing church growth workshops in hundreds of churches. Ten years ago I took over the reins of a non-profit organization that has been devoted to modernizing churches by dealing with everything from theology to creating different models for spiritual communities.

It is not easy to look back over the amount of time, energy and money I expended in these efforts and accept the reality I probably influenced very little significant change. Change of any kind is hard for the majority of us. We like our patterns. We are more comfortable with our walls of familiarity. Significant change can be outright painful for many people. Religious communities have even greater roadblocks for change than other institutions. They are frankly designed to resist change. They are usually bound by ancient creeds, outdated belief systems and Holy documents that cannot be challenged. And for many there is often the spoken and unspoken fear of infinite retribution.

And maybe just as importantly, long term supporters frequently do not want their faith communities to change. In our rapidly changing world, churches can be one of the few places left that remain the same for them. So many people find comfort in reciting the creeds they may have been declaiming since childhood. They find familiarity in hearing divinely inspired texts but give little thought to the complexities of biblical contradiction. They love the ancient traditions simply because they are traditional. And yes there is the familiar music accompanied by the pipe organ that brings back fond memories for many. But every year there are fewer people for whom these traditions are familiar or even comforting.

The only clear thing that seems to be changing in churches today is the falling number of people who attend services on Sundays. In the last 50 years, most denominations have lost about one percent of the membership annually. In the 30 years I have been consulting churches on change, it is estimated that over 100,000 churches have closed. Today depending on whose statistics you want to use, churches all over the country are closing at a rate of somewhere between 4,000 to 7,000 churches a year. Southern Baptist researcher, Thom Rainer, in a recent article entitled “13 Issues for Churches in 2013” puts the estimate higher. He believes between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will likely close in a given year.

I have talked about these statistics with denominational leaders, influential clergy, presidents of seminaries and scholars for decades. Nothing significant seems to change. The mantra for years has been, “Oh, they will come back when they have children.” For the vast majority of young adults today there is no coming back. Well over 60 percent of young adults have never been in a church, a synagogue or a temple. They have little or no religious experience and what they have had tends to be viewed as a negative.

So you can imagine how surprised I was when I met Tom Thresher for coffee over eight years ago. I had heard about the unique church in Washington State he was leading. I looked him up to see what he was doing that was so different. Not only was Tom aware of the troubling statistics and the roadblocks to change in our faith communities but he also has been looking for new ways to break the impasse. We both had given a great deal of thought to the situation and we began to share some of our ideas about how to implement change. The friendship and those conversations have continued on a regular basis since that day.

As a former businessman, and a theologian, I tended to think in terms promoting a new Christian message that might be more attractive to our younger and better educated generations. But Tom is a trained educator. He looked more closely at the possibility of changing the way participants think through spiritual education rather than just trying to update the Christian message. Let’s call it Christianity 2014. We both agreed any significant change was only going to happen through better education and meaningful and intimate conversations. Our goals were similar. I thought we should develop better curriculum for theological investigation. Tom was clear that real change is not possible without personal work which can only happen in small groups. This requires a well thought out plan and tools to break the impasses. This is what one will find in this his latest book, Crazy Wisdom.

Building around the revolutionary work of Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey called Immunity to Change, Tom has designed a process for participants in small groups to develop a new, expansive awareness. Using this process, individuals and eventually communities, are able to make important changes while developing the greater mental and emotional complexity required in today’s world.

Tom makes the audacious claim here that faith communities are uniquely situated to lead the evolution of human consciousness to help create a more just, caring and sustainable world. Crazy Wisdom is dedicated to answering how we just might go about doing that.

Tom brings a dozen years of practice in his faith community to the table and a lot of valuable research. He has developed a wide variety of tools to help folks nudge their awareness into more expansive realms. The tools are described and set within different spiritual cosmologies to connect them to a larger context. There are practices for daily use and a basic curriculum is provided. Not surprisingly, these tools are grounded in humanity’s great wisdom traditions.

I close with this warning. This book does not offer a silver bullet or simple fix for our dying faith communities. It has nothing to do with the length of sermons or what kind of music we should have in our congregations. It is not about moving the pews or adding coffee tables in the sanctuary. It is not about church renewal.

It is about doing something new and it is not going to be simple for a lot of people. It is about changing the way we learn, the way we think and the way we relate. It is about going deeper than most people are used to going in our competitive, goal driven society. The book is designed for those in small groups who sincerely want to dive more deeply into the profound wisdom of their traditions to make essential personal changes in their lives through a growing awareness. I feel confident this book could provide the model and the foundation for a small group program wherever and however they are formed. It may also fill the needs of the thousands of people who contact our offices every year, searching for a spiritual community with a small group program or for those who want to form their own small group. Providing them with such an opportunity may be one of the most important things we can do today.

“Crazy Wisdom: Tools for Evolving Consciousness” by Tom Thresher



Review & Commentary