Thursday, March 10, 2016

Doing a New Thing


In the church business, it's dangerous to get everyone excited about "the good old days" and then tell them we're not going to be like that anymore. I suppose that's dangerous in lots of other spheres of life, too, but, as a clergyperson, I feel acutely the tug between the traditions that define our past and the need to innovate. To oversimplify, everyone wants new people in church but no one wants to stop doing old things.

When I read Isaiah 43:16-21, I wonder, then, what it was like for the people of Judah to hear the prophet remind them of the salvation path that God wrought for them through the Red Sea, where the "chariot and horse, army and warrior" of Egypt were laid waste and "quenched like a wick" only then to say "Do not remember the former things...I am about to do a new thing." Was that good news? Were the people in exile excited to know that God's salvation would come in a new form? Was the "way in the wilderness" unreservedly good news, or were the people disappointed to know that salvation wasn't going to look the same as it had to their ancestors?

Given all the surrounding text, in which the prophet says things like "Fear not, for I have redeemed you" and "I give Egypt as your ransom," I think these words are supposed to be hopeful. But there is a disjunction with the past. So much of the first part of Isaiah 43 is remembering the way things used to be. By the time we get to the lesson for this Sunday, a transition is happening. There's some judgment language like "Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob" in there, too. So maybe this is both hopeful and a little unsettling. Maybe the people are being asked to recognize that, although God is still in the salvation business, it might not be exactly the same as it had been in former times.

Last night at St. John's, we heard from the Rev. Kelley Hudlow, who serves as the general manager of the Abbey, which is a church disguised as a coffee shop in the Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham. Since she is on the frontlines of evangelism, I suppose that she is often asked things like, "What can our church do to reach out to new people?" and "Should we open a coffee shop in our church, too?" That wasn't the focus of her presentation last night, but she did invite us to consider three things, which I want to hold on to in the weeks and months ahead. Here is her recipe for being the church and doing exciting new things: 1) hold space, 2) say yes, 3) be authentic. As she admitted, those sound simple but might be the hardest three things for a church to do.

In a conversation with Kelley after her talk, we touched on the challenges that face the church in the coming 25 years. She described it as a bubble. As we might expect, the biggest financial backers of churches took up that role in their prime earning years--their 40s and 50s. But, in today's church, there aren't many 20-somethings or 30-somethings who will be able and willing to take over that financial obligation when they hit their professional stride. The big givers--and they are also the big doers behind most of our ministries--will keep giving and doing until they can't anymore. And then what? Then, I'll suggest to you, we will find ourselves in Babylon, desperate for salvation.

I think the institutional church faces a decision point right now. Either we anticipate that bubble bursting and begin to let go of the old institutions and ministries and change the way we do church so that we can begin to BOTH attract committed leaders in their 20s and 30s AND transition away from unsustainable ministries and financial models. Or we can wait until that bubble bursts, the money and people dry up, and find ourselves forced to change the way we do church in a crisis moment. It's up to us. Will we anticipate the crisis or wait for it to happen?

Isaiah 43 is a hopeful but tough reminder. It's good news because salvation has come and is coming and will always come. But the way we have modeled God's salvation for the world is changing. It must change. What does the prophet tell us? Don't even bother remembering the way things were. That's how new this moment of salvation will be. It's hard to let go of old ways, but, in order to embrace fully the hope that is coming, we must put them aside.

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