There was no #7 presentation in “The Future of the Church” series in the 2011 Lenten Noon Forum at St. John the Divine Anglican Church on Quadra in Victoria, B.C.
“The Future of Church #7″ is my reflections on what I gleaned from listening for six hours to a retired pastor and writer, a traveling spiritual teacher and writer, three active Anglican parish clergy, an academic historian and university administrator, an archbishop, and an ethicist and retreat/conference centre administrator talk about what they see in the future for the church.
I heard 12 main points in all this talk about the future of the church. These 12 themes were repeated in many of the talks:
1. The church is in the midst of a massive cultural sea change. This paradigm shift is altering everything around us and we in the church are not at fault for the devastating impact it is having upon our institution. The decline in the church is not primarily the fault of mismanagement, bad theology, or lack of good will. We are caught up in forces much bigger than we can control.
2. The shift we are currently navigating is generally described as a move away from rationalism, propositional faith, and institutionalism. People are no longer seeking intellectual answers to questions or rigid institutional embodiments of those answers. They are looking for a deep experience of God and profound inner wisdom to support them in living authentic and integrated lives. We can no longer assume institutional loyalty. The days when we could rely on loyalty to the church and general agreement to a uniform body of dogmas are gone. It is not adequate to demand allegiance, or simply keep announcing our convictions confident people will eventually sign up.
3. Although the institutional expression of faith is in precipitous decline throughout North America and Europe, faith is not in decline. The majority of people still believe in God and have deep spiritual longings. They simply would not think of looking to the church to satisfy their spiritual hunger.
4. Faced with decline, the institution of the church is permeated by fear. Some in the church are fearful for the preservation of their cherished institutions and buildings. Others fear that their familiar theological formulations are being threatened. Fear is never a good starting place for opening to the movement of God’s Spirit.
5. The pervasive fear in the church is paralyzing. It inhibits genuine conversation and keeps us fixated on finding solutions, rather than launching into bold new adventures of faith. There is no way to move forward until we come to grips with the reality of fear. Dealing with fear requires deep personal and corporate spiritual practice. Only transformed people will have the ability to be a transformed church.
6. The church will not recover its nerve, its creativity, or its authenticity simply by instituting fancy new gimmicks, implementing flashy programs, trying to get more organized, or working harder. The way forward is through the development of meaningful spiritual practices,a renewal of corporate spirituality, and a profound shift of consciousnss in the way we do church. These deep inner changes will only be achieved by creating space for an awareness of the presence and action of God to emerge in our midst.
7. People want to learn spiritual practices. They want wisdom for the journey of life. If the church is going to meet these real desires, we must put aside our obsession with the institution and explore the presence and action of God’s Spirit at work in our lives, in our churches, and beyond the church in unexpected places throughout the world. Where we find God’s Spirit at work, we must cooperate with and celebrate that work, even when it seems unusual and unsettling to our established ways of doing church.
8. In order for us to cooperate with the work of God’s Spirit, we must loosen our grip. If the church wants to move forward in the current environment, we can allow no place for stultifying rigid hierarchy or oppressive control. Clergy must learn to let go. We need to relax our structures, allow for fluidity, flexibility, openness, and diversity.
9. Letting go means being willing to accept that certain things may need to die. There are some institutional expressions of faith that are simply no longer sustainable. Certain things must be left undone in order to create space for new things to arise. For a time this may look messy. It may seem like failure. But the only failure is demanding that what has been in the past must continue to be in the future. Such a demand makes us unable to respond to the call of God’s Spirit blowing through the church today.
10. A church that has the potential to appeal beyond the narrow confines of churchland, will be driven by a vision that reduces division and emphasizes the oneness of all creation and of the human community. We are too familiar with the devastation of division in our midst. We know too well the impact of dissension and discord. The world is looking for places where the realities of deep connection are honoured and practiced. When churches quarrel and separate, they erect impenetrable obstacles to being able to speak in any meaningful way to the world beyond the church. We must model profound respect for all people. We must learn to pay careful attention to the world and to listen carefully for God’s Spirit at work in all peoples’ lives. Good speaking always starts from good listening.
11. We need to listen to the world outside the church and find ways to make church more accessible to that world. The world will never listen to an arrogant voice that pronounces from a position of power and privilege. The world will listen only to the authentic voice that speaks from a place of deep sensitivity and openness to the real wisdom that is already present in the hearts of people who do not find a place in the church.
12. There is hope. God has not given up on the church. God has not given up on the world. There will always be a need for spirituality to be embodied in some form of institutional expression. As we navigate the death throes of institutional forms that no longer have life and vitality, we need to keep our hearts open to the presence of the God who has not abandoned us. We need to trust God’s work in our midst and remain open to one another and to the world around us trusting in the faithful guidance of God’s Spirit.