Easy For You to Say

I was recently sent this article warning about the perils congregations are in if they fail to heed the lessons of history and business.  While it’s only a month or so old, I could swear I’ve read a similar story to this, with similar “lessons” drawn.  

Basically, don’t be stupid like Kodak and miss out on the next big thing in church culture.  Well, all-righty then.  Duly noted.  Nobody wants to be stupid.  Kodak’s demise is certainly a shock to many people who enjoyed their products for decades.  And most mainline denominational congregations are experiencing precipitous drops in attendance and membership that have them facing the prospects of having to shut their doors.  Seems like this article ought to be a Godsend, and there are plenty of well-intentioned industry experts and gurus using stuff like this to smack congregations on the head and convince them to do something different.
But the article, while illustrative, isn’t very helpful.  It describes an event in retrospect, and expects us to draw useful working helps and hints for ourselves today.  As a student and lover of history I certainly want people to know the past.  But knowing the past isn’t necessarily a sure-fire means of avoiding repeating it.
Signs of demise as listed are vaguely helpful.  It’s easy for congregations to confuse their mission.  In fact, I’d say it’s endemic.  Church has been done this way for all of American history and a good hundreds of years before that in Europe.  Build a church.  People will go to that church once it’s built.  Originally, it’s because there weren’t any other options.  Originally, it’s because in part people were forced to go (or at least send money) to the local parish based on the religious sentiments of their rulers.  Later, it was culturally enforced.  Now, culture has changed.  The fact that you have a church building doesn’t mean people will come to it.  And the congregation does not exist specifically to preserve the church building.  We need to see our mission as making disciples and building them up in the faith.  If and when that mission necessitates a building, that’s great – have one.  But the building isn’t the mission.  It’s a (possible) tool for the mission.  
Yes, failing to read the times can be catastrophic, the problem is that reading the times and making appropriate changes is very, very difficult.  If it were as simple as that, then churches would be in better shape today.  It isn’t that people haven’t been paying attention for the last 50 years.  It isn’t that congregations haven’t tried various changes.  Oh, change the music!  Oh, scrap the liturgy!  Oh, ordain women!  Oh, affirm homosexuality!  Oh, meet in a strip mall!  Oh, use historic hymnody!  Oh, reintroduce the liturgy!  Plenty of efforts are still underway to adjust to the changes of the times, but none of these appear to be a silver bullet either singly or collectively.
Fear of loss is more or less part of being human.  When we aren’t sure what the changing times mean, and when we aren’t clear on what changes we need to implement to adjust to changing times, it’s easy to be afraid of loss.  Nobody wants to lose anything.  What we fail to often consider is not so much what we lose, but what we stand to gain in change.  That’s a harder tactic to identify, but I like to think it’s a critical one.  Our goal is faithfulness.  Our means to that end may change somewhat, inasfar as we are permitted by Scripture.
As far as what to learn?  That’s less helpful.
Accept reality – most congregations are aware of these trends.  They see them every Sunday.  
Revolutionize, don’t tweak – revolutionize what?  Frankly, from Vatican II on, there has been a lot of revolutionizing, yet the trends have not changed.  They’ve accelerated.  Churches have thrown out everything – music, art, liturgy, Scripture, the Gospel – they are still dying.  Except for those that aren’t.  Other churches have clung to everything and they’re dying.  Except for those that aren’t.  In other words, revolutionizing is only helpful insofar as you revolutionize the right thing.  Revolutionizing the wrong thing won’t help.  And nobody seems to have an idea on what the right thing to revolutionize is.  
Take risks/act now – well, this is somewhat helpful.  Yet the helpfulness is muted.  We are not called to create physical, institutional legacies.  We are called to share the Gospel.  Through our daily lives as well as through Word and Sacrament ministry.  There is never a guarantee in Scripture about how this will work out for us, personally.
Oh wait, I’m wrong.  Jesus’ words to the women mourning for him on the way to Golgotha sure seem like a guarantee.  Or Jesus’ words to his disciples before sending them out on a mission trip – these certainly sound like a guarantee, but not the kind of guarantee we want.  
So what do we do?  Well, we cling to what matters.  We cling to the Word of God and the Sacraments that He has given us.  We never compromise in order to appeal to a broader market segment.  We never water down in order to improve our ratings.  We never betray the Gospel in order to have more Facebook friends.  We continue to devote ourselves to the Word of God, to prayer, to fellowship.  We continue to learn day by day what it looks like to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We trust that just as with the early Church, it will not necessarily be evangelism programs but rather the Holy Spirit who guides people into Christian community – whether that is our particular community or not!  
We also acknowledge that it’s easy to take pot shots at intelligent people who are making the best decisions they are able to at the moment they are faced with them.  It’s easy to stand here in 2014 and laugh at Kodak 40 years ago for not buying into digital film.  It’s easy to laugh at the Swiss watchmakers who blew off digital watches.  Hindsight allows us to feel smug and superior.  These people were not fools, though.  They were part of longstanding industries and they were quite capable.  Their failure to recognize massive shifts point out to us our own inability in this regard.  It’s very difficult to gauge how things are changing, or to gauge how they might change someday (since digital cameras certainly weren’t storming the market in 1975).  We need to recognize how near-sighted (or far-sighted, I can never remember which!) we are, and deal both with ourselves and others with a healthy measure of grace.  
We are called to be faithful.  We just need to be prepared for the idea that faithfulness may not mean we get to keep things just the way we like them, and that’s OK, even if it’s disappointing in some ways.  In other ways, it’s very, very, very exciting!

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