Challenge and Disruption | Sojourners

Challenge and Disruption

The path ahead. Photo by Elena Schweitzer / Via Shutterstock

I had the privilege of teaching a pastoral theology class at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, last week.

I had the entire senior class: 13 young, promising, enthusiastic, veterans of church wars, and yet eager to get started.

Like any speaker with a full deck of PowerPoint slides, I probably said more than was needed. But I wanted to make, reinforce, clarify, and leave no mistake about my main point: Business as usual is off the table.

After nearly 50 years of relentless decline in mainline churches, business as usual is a sinking ship. The way forward lies in fresh ideas, turnaround strategies, entrepreneurial enthusiasm for risk, and learning from failure.

In other words, the way forward will mean change, and not the easy changes we have been making the past five decades — such as the gender and sexuality of those serving at the altar, what language we speak in liturgy. These changes provoked bitter conflict and yet weren’t that difficult to implement.

The way forward lies in rethinking the basics, such as the place of worship, our focus on Sunday morning, our increasingly unaffordable facilities, stewardship, and which way we face: inward or outward.

This is when we “go from preaching to meddling.” For now we aren’t dealing with “customer satisfaction” — pleasing the inner circle, providing the “goods and services” they want, listening for complaints, playing by inherited rules, maintaining a calm institution.

Now we are seeking to transform — transform constituents’ lives and transform our troubled world. Now we are actually “doing what Jesus did.” Now we are disrupting and challenging.

The locus for ministry going forward, for example, will be small groups, mission, and relational spirituality, not big Sunday services. That doesn’t mean we will stop doing Sunday. Why would we stop? We’re good at it, many want it — but we will look to smaller, more personal venues to nurture transformation.

The pastor’s work will be more community organizing and startup entrepreneurship, and less presiding at the table. That will require new skills, a new self-understanding, and a new tolerance for ambiguity, conflict, and collaboration.

The work of lay constituents will be networking, collaborating in mission, meddling with cultural systems. The goal: to see their entire lives as holy ground, not just the Sunday hour in church.

Facilities oriented toward Sunday worship will need to be opened to other uses, or face growing doubt about their value. This could be a wrenching assessment. Some churches are already contemplating non-Sunday and non-worship uses for their worship space, such as community centers, feeding ministries, and small-business incubators.

Stewardship will reside in gratitude, not in managing household finances and seeing what is left for charitable donations. We will give from the harvest, not from a calculated divvying up of leftovers. Congregations will need to promote tithing — 10 percent of the harvest — and to stop focusing on institutional maintenance.

Needs outside the door will matter more than customer satisfaction inside the door. The pushback on this basic change of focus will make battles over gender, sex, and language seem incidental. Privileged cohorts will protest; established leaders will protest; people accustomed to being served and flattered will protest.

These seniors at Seminary of the Southwest won’t have an easy time, but it will be a grand adventure in pioneering.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.