It has been almost 10 years since a tsunami engulfed the southern part of Indonesia and Thailand. Many of us remember scenes and stories from the event. One in particular that has stayed in my mind is the tale of young 10 year old Tilly Smith at Maihkoa Beach near Phuket, Thailand. With her parents she watched as suddenly the water was sucked out to sea and dry land appeared. Adults stopped to stare open mouth but Tilly remember a geography lesson from her school back in Surrey, England. She realized that water rushing out is a prelude to the crashing of a tidal wave, a tsunami of terrifying force. Many were saved because of her insight and courageous warning.
A tsunami of secularity is hitting Chrisitan churches of the so-called industrialized world. But unlike Maikhao, Beach few have been listening to Tilly Smith give her warning. Instead of moving to higher ground, we have argued over who controls the temporarily dry land.
Think back on the history of Christianity in the West since World War II. In America, with the end of the war, the tide went out exposing great swatches of new land. Soldiers came home, married and started raising a family, and went to church. Churches boomed in numerical growth across the country. There was an explosion in new church development.
As the water receded, the so-called mainline churches dominated the American social and religious landscape. The denominational health and strength of American churches was impressive. Like those at Maikhoa Beach with Tilly, we were tempted (and usually succumb to the temptation) to rush toward the receding water and the newly dry land. The reach of the Christian movement was expanding. A shining future of unimpeded progress not only numerically but ethically in the arenas of love, justice and mercy appeared before us.
Meanwhile, the crashing waves coming in could be seen in the distance by the perceptive few attuned like Tilly to the approaching disaster. A French Priest and sociologist named Abbe Godin authored an academic work entitled simply France Pagan? The original work, written in 1940, addressed the loss of the French working class in the 1930s by the Roman Catholic Church. Fr. Abbe Godin was an early Tilly Smith. The underwater earthquake had already hit Europe through the rock crushing volcanism of the Enlightenment and the deep disillusionment of World War I. The moral chaos which followed directly contributed to World War II.
In the United States the tsunami of secularity has taken much longer to crash on the beaches of our society. But, today it is common for many to see the church as irrelevant and Christianity as quaint. Amid signs of spiritual starvation, we in the church are wrestling with deep institutional change and engulfed in a crisis of relevancy. Since coming to Central Texas I have talked about the end of Christendom (the culture wide dominance of the Christian church) and the post-Christian age we are now in. (Growing up in the 1950s, Wednesday night was church night and other events were not schedule in the community. So called “Blue Laws” about what could be sold or open on Sunday were common. Today, youth often have to choose between going to church on Sunday or participating in their soccer league.)
The United Methodist Church has been struggling to engage this new cultural reality during most of my 40 years of ministry. It is an exciting time with wonderful new ministries emerging. It is trying time with vast change sweeping like tsunami waters over existing congregation. To paraphrase Dickens’ marvelous quote; “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.”
Saturday morning Jolynn and I will fly to St. Simons Island, Georgia for the Learning Retreat of the Active Bishops of the United Methodist Church. Collectively, the bishops of the church are leaning in to what is called “the Adaptive Challenge;” – ““To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The United Methodist Communications press release shares well the outline of our learning activities: “Much of the learning experience will be centered on ‘adaptive leadership,’ led by Marty Linsky, a professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates, a leadership consulting, training and coaching practice. Linsky co-authored The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World with Ronald A. Heifetz and Alexander Grashow.”
Professor Heifetz’ landmark leadership study Leadership Without Easy Answers written in 1994 reaches for the essence of what we are working on. Together with Marty Linsky they wrote Leadership on the Line in 2002. Both of my copies are liberally highlighted. I am further fascinated that one of the articles we are required to read before coming is entitled “Leadership in a Permanent Crisis.”
The press release accurately continues: “‘We believe we are in a time of adaptive change,’ said Bishop Peter Weaver, executive secretary of the Council. ‘We’re not looking at just defined problems with clear-cut solutions, but rather how we might adapt to more effectively accomplish our mission in a global and changing environment.’
The Vital Congregations Leadership Team [which I am Convener/Chair of] will lead the bishops in talking about congregational development and how to apply the adaptive leadership theory in ways that help reach the goal of increasing the number of vital congregations. The attendees will also travel from Epworth to see the principles of congregational vitality in action.
Dr. Christine Pohl, Associate Provost for Faculty Development at Asbury Theological Seminary, and author of Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us, will invite the participants into spiritual centering and living into community through daily Bible study and worship.”
We are engaging in these activities amidst an ongoing crisis of church governance around the issue of same gender marriages (which are not allowed by United Methodist Church Law and significant number of United States UM clergy committed to breaking that law). The crisis focused around same gender issues and ministry is, I am convinced, a presenting issue of the deeper crisis of theology and authority (biblical and ecclesiastical). The United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) is releasing a new book edited by Bishop Rueben Job and President & Publisher of the UMPH entitled Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist. In Finding Our Way various bishops of the church offer perspectives for prayer and consideration about the best way forward in this current presenting crisis for the United Methodist Church. I am privileged to be one of the contributors. I commend it to your reading.
Scott Jones, bishop for the Great Plains area, correctly observes, “Unity rests in coherence of doctrine, mission, and discipline.” The painful reality is that we lack coherence in doctrine. We don’t have deep clarity on mission. (We agree to “make disciples,” but we don’t agree on what it means to be a disciple.) And we are locked in a struggle over discipline.
This pessimistic assessment should not deter us. The church been here before. After all, we are a people of the resurrection. Wesley’s great affirmation is an echo of the risen Savior’s promise at the close of the gospel of Matthew; “the best of all is that God is with us!”
The question we must face as we look to a future of hope is: What form will this new future God is calling us to take? We must weld the Lord’s promise in Jeremiah to a resurrection conviction and theology. “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
To borrow from Yeats’ marvelous poem The Second Coming:
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
It is to this end we will labor on our Learning Retreat.