This past spring The Contemplative Society website (http://www.contemplative.org/) posted 12 summary statements about the future of church I gleaned from a Lenten Series I attended, accompanied by a response from Cynthia Bourgeault. With Cynthia’s encouragement, I am reposting the original paragraph, followed by her response, and my response to Cynthia. We hope this may generate some conversation. Cynthia will check in and respond to comments if she feels inspired.

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.

Cynthia: This strikes me as an enormously helpful and non-judgmental way of framing the situation, encouraging us right from the outset to “think outside the box.” It really is a fascinating time to be alive as not only change itself but the rate of change keeps accelerating beyond anything the world has ever experienced. From global warming to the worldwide web, it’s all about dynamic equilibrium in a fragile and interconnected world. This may be new to traditional theological formulations, but it’s right at the heart of the Jesus message.

As Fr. Bruno Barnhart so brilliantly put it in his book Second Simplicity: “The gospel’s secret power, often hardly glimpsed by Christianity itself, is the gathering up of all our passion, our entropic centrifugal energy, our very outward thrust and vital compulsivity, secularity, and carnality into this divine energy that ever flows outward from its hidden Source.” If it happened once, it can happen again. And we will find our way by turning toward it, not by running scared.

Christopher: Change brings so many challenges, especially when, as you say “the rate of change keeps accelerating beyond anything the world has ever experienced.” Different people respond to the turmoil and uncertainty of change in different ways.

In the face of the massive changes unfolding all around us, some people want to jump on board the change-ship and jettison all “baggage” from the past. For these people, if it is new and different, it must be good. If it is tainted with the cobwebs of tradition it should be thrown overboard. They want to toss all the maps the past has given us to navigate the uncertain waters of the present. If we give ourselves completely to this strategy, the church risks running aground in shallow waters.

Other people, confronted with the uncertainty of change, want to cling to the little islands they have been able to build in the middle of the stormy ocean. They resist all efforts to move them to sail into any new waters. These people are determined to cling to the safety of past formulations. They rush to resist, any alteration to what we have always believed, or the way we have always embodied those beliefs. This is the strategy of a church that refuses to listen to contemporary culture. It is doomed eventually to sink from sight as no one outside the tight little community inhabiting the small safe island enclave pays any attention.

We have struggled to find a way in the church for these two groups to co-exist. Those who are enthusiastic about change and want to rush forward, feel dragged down and paralyzed by those who are determined to preserve the past. Those who see themselves as guardians of an unchanging fixed embodiment of faith, feel deeply threatened by those who are eager to embrace new expressions of faith and ways of being church.

In the past few decades these two ways of being church have reached an impasse that has frequently resulted in a parting of the ways. To the bewilderment of the world, the church continues to break apart on the treacherous rocks of the deep division between “progressives,” and “conservatives.” We appear trivial and petty as we disembowel ourselves over squabbles the rest of the world finds incomprehensible.

We must find a third way between the anarchic force of constant change for the sake of change and the rigid dogmatic resistance to any winds of change that may be blowing in the world.

I am sure Fr. Barnhart is right that the key lies with “The gospel’s secret power.” I take this “secret power” to be the presence and action of the Spirit who “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)

In order to follow where the Spirit is blowing, we must be willing to keep our sails up and our boats light. But, in order to sail effectively, we must also have ballast. There are things that need to go overboard and things we need to store in the hold of our boat.

The things that we need to throw back into the sea are mostly attitudes the church has frequently imposed upon the gift of our tradition. We need to rid ourselves, not of our traditions, but of the rigidity and narrowness with which we have held these gifts from our past. We need to chuck overboard our arrogance, fear, protectiveness, failure to trust those who have chosen to sail with us, lack of respect for the other boats in the ocean, and our unwillingness to listen deeply to the weather conditions in which we are attempting to sail. We need to let go of that false security that makes it impossible for us to truly engage the world outside the church and keeps us fearful of the legitimate questions that world is asking.

If we dispose of such deadly attitudes we will sail more confidently with the ballast of our traditions, our sacred texts, our liturgies, and even our forms of church governance intact.

Jesus said,

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

Church reform will only begin when the hearts of those in the church begin to be transformed. Our hearts will be transformed as we choose to surrender our ego programs to the “divine energy that ever flows outward from its hidden Source.”

The difficulty of course is that there are few patterns to point to of what it might look like to live lightly and humbly with our forms of embodied faith, while remaining deeply connected to the richness of the tradition in which we are grounded and held.

The way forward for the church is not to jettison all form freeing every person to create their own individual private manifestation of faith. Nor will we move forward if we simply cling ever more tightly to the forms we have held through the ages determined to resist any winds of change.

We must rather seek to find ways to reform the structures we have been given, enabling them to open to the presence of God’s Spirit blowing in the changes that are unfolding all around and within the church. This is the more challenging, but also more promising, way forward.