We live in a time of extraordinary change. Everything is shifting so quickly, it feels impossible to keep up.
In times of rapid dramatic change, institutions are hit particularly hard. Adherence to traditional paradigms can no longer be taken for granted. We cannot assume that the familiar ways of doing anything continue to be viable. It is easy to feel threatened when the ways we have always conducted our life together are all open to question.
Recognizing the realities of our changed situation is not a counsel for despair. Viewing the realities of our culture honestly and openly is part of listening sensitively to the context in which we struggle to do ministry. The history of the church is filled with the violent actions and arrogance of church officials who have failed to take seriously the life situations of those among whom they were seeking to do ministry.
We in the church must not turn a blind eye to the reality of the changes that are happening in every area of our society.
We might wish it were not true; but it is impossible to take for granted allegiance to the comfortable patterns of the past. We can demand that people honour the way things used to be done all we want. This will not change the fact that people are going to make up their own minds about how they choose to live.
Medical professionals who follow traditional western practices can rail against alternative medicine. This will not prevent patients from consulting a Naturopath or going for accupuncture. Teachers may object to families who choose to diverge from the normative educational path. But the professional educators’ objections will not stop parents from choosing to homeschool their children. Elected officials may complain that alternative political parties have no value in the system. But people at the polls will still vote Green.
Church is not exempt from the impact of massive cultural shifts.
Church professionals may lament the reality, but nothing is going to change the fact that in our communities we now share Sunday morning with many other activities. We may object, but are powerless to alter the fact that, even among those who do choose to attend church on a regular basis, weekly attendance is increasingly rare and institutional loyalty is a charming relic of the past. Spiritual consumerism may be unfortunate; but it is a reality we are powerless to undo.
We might wish that people would continue to dedicate ten percent of their income to the work of our churches. But, economic challenges and an increasingly competitive market for charitable donations, mean that such an expectation may no longer be realistic.
We might hope that parishioners would dedicate regular hours to volunteer work in the church. But, in a world where many families depend upon two incomes, and in which time pressures are excessive, it may simply not be possible or even healthy to demand that parishioners dedicate their few discretionary hours to volunteer church work.
At a deeper level, churches can no longer expect that every person who connects with the church will necessarily follow the prescribed pattern of spiritual life.
We can pontificate all we want about the authority of the closed canon of Scripture. This will not stop people from finding spiritual nourishment in “The Gospel of Thomas.” We can demand that worshipers stand up and recite the Creeds. But the average person in the pew will continue to interpret these words according to their understanding regardless of how the professionals demand the ancient words be understood. We can teach that the pattern for Eucharist is baptism prior to reception; this will not prevent parents from sharing their bread with their unbaptized children, or unbaptized adults from participating at the Table as freely as they choose.
The world is changing at an incredible pace. If there is going to continue to be any corporate expression of Christian faith in the changed realities we face, the church must pay attention to the changes it is powerless to prevent. We must find the voice of God’s Spirit speaking in the midst of change.
Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God said,
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)
If our hearts are not open, we may fail to “perceive” the “new thing” God is doing. We need to trust in God’s faithfulness and listen carefully to the message of the changed realities of our culture. There is nothing to fear. God is at work. The only question is whether we will cooperate with the “new thing” God is doing or continue to resist the movement of God’s Spirit.