By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministry

I went to an environmentally focused liberal arts college for undergrad back in the late 90s. While environmental issues were in the public sphere already, many of the conversations we had were way ahead of the curve. As things go when anyone tries to predict the future, some of the forecasted calamities never came to be. In fact, if all of the environmental predictions we discussed came true I would be writing from a house that was underwater literally rather than financially.

Many of the stories we tell about the church and its future, or lack thereof, remind me of those days. We speak of its future demise as if we can predict how the story ends when in reality we can do no such thing; the future hasn’t been written. Just as with the environment, the church has its own version of climate change deniers but we also have the sky is falling sort whose lack of hope can torpedo any initiative to try and do something new. If you know me you know I’m more the latter but confession is the first step, right? ☺

I was the odd person out at my environmental college. I didn’t have an overwhelming concern or care for the environment. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t really sure about the benefits of recycling, the dangers of overpopulation, the sources of global warming, etc. In short, I wasn’t a tree hugger (a term of affection there) and I didn’t really care about the spotted whales.

The gloom and doom predictions never impressed me and they certainly didn’t motivate me to change my behavior. I think my wife gets credit for most of that. Fear is one of the worst motivators there is, especially when the object of one’s fear is a vague or poorly defined set of future predictions. Every missed indicator becomes a reason to discount the entirety of said theory and an avenue to return to one’s past form of behavior. Sadly, despite mounting evidence, we continue to see this type of argumentation in responses to global warming today.

Let me suggest that this is also true for the church. People have been discussing the decline of the church for quite a few years now. We’ve gotten used to the dire warnings and predictions of the end. It is part of our collective story. Despite the fact that less people attend church regularly, or feel the need to do it at all, many congregations keep plodding forward without much change. “Those young people will come back eventually; we did! Besides, the problem really isn’t us, it’s the world that changed.”

This tendency is also evidenced in how quickly we can forget that there is a problem when we see a small resurgence in Sunday morning worship attendance or successful attendance at a church event. Somehow, suddenly, our individual faith community is now impervious to those larger cultural issues, and internal discipleship issues, and we alone will persevere against the Goliath of mainline malaise. Both display a refusal to accept a reality because the story it is packaged in is too bleak, dire, or simply boring.

While I question the effectiveness of scaring folks into doing the right thing, I believe there is a strong need to tell our story in a way that demands a future without neglecting the present. Austrian philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich said it this way:

“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

While the church is committed to changing the world, let me suggest that we need to start by changing our story. The gains we have seen in environmental awareness and response have as much to do with a changing the tone of their story (talking about what preservation efforts give us) as they do with making change more practical and accessible. A future with hope is one we can build together intentionally, while the future of fear is one we can only run haphazardly from. The difference is the story we decide to tell.

So you want those millennials to start attending your church? Great! A funeral in progress may not be the strongest story we can tell. So let’s stop telling the tale about the death of the church and start writing the story about the future of the church. Our rewrite can’t ignore current realities but it must refuse to be limited by them.

So what is the story the God of liberation, restoration and resurrection would have us tell? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below.


Photo Credit:  AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Flickr user MudflapDC.

14 COMMENTS

    • Hahaha, I was wondering how long it would take for someone to notice that. You get the no prize! 🙂 And thanks for reading.

  1. Thanks, Patrick. I agree. Sometime early this year I reach my saturation point with bemoaning the state of the church, and focusing on saving it. I am not interested in saving the church, I am interested in telling the Gospel, in word and in action.

    • Paul dickered and bickered with Peter to change the story for gentiles. There is always someone pulling forward and there are always people pulling back. It gets hard when the people pulling back and pulling forward start invalidating each other.

      My places of resurrection, redemption, and new creation? Come visit “my kids” at the detention center and in their communities. And in the PNWUMC BoD and CRC committees that approved me through even though I went a non-traditional route. I told the CRC folks that the UMC has been like a sticky door that you have to wiggle open, but it is opening. And that is much better than a door that is nailed shut. But, the question might be, can we get enough doors wiggled open? And maybe some of the doors should be nailed shut.

      Some of the doors will lead to a return to ancient practices (hey! evening prayer with kids in detention!). Some of the doors will lead to a New Creation. I am hopeful. Now if I could find a money trail. 😉

      • Our sometimes myopic focus as a church can make it very hard for creative ministries to take root. From such a place it’s easy to see how detention center ministries might be ‘nice’ but less important. Thank God for determined people who force doors open and for gatekeepers willing to let folks through. Of course, a little gatekeeping is also an important task of discernment… Thanks for your reflections (and your ministry).

  2. Well written article, however I do believe the story has been told … perhaps it is time to go back to the original story minus all of man’s improvements. Yep – I am referring to the Bible – God’s unchanging word to an everchanging world. The basic message is unchanged “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. John 3:16. Perhaps if the church puts its policital agenda, cultural agenda, “seeker friendly” agenda, or for that matter any and all agendas and goes back to the basics, all people will find the church relevant, alive and real.

    Just my thoughts.

    • I agree the process may require us to remember and much as to faithfully discern the path forward. While I agree that the church always needs to be careful lest it be taken over by an outside agenda, the church that has no social or cultural agenda is relatively pointless. What are we if we aren’t coworkers in God’s vineyard?

  3. Great article Patrick! The quote by Ivan Illich particularly resonated with me. God usually only shows us a sliver of the whole, but we are too often guilty of using that sliver to forecast the future. My hope is our churches will never forget that we worship a God we call Redeemer and he beckons us daily to rewrite the story with Him.

  4. AMEN Patrick! We have been shaped/are continuing to be shaped by the narrative/story of our foremothers & fathers in the faith. Biblical narrative and the stories through the generations are of hope-filled future even in the midst of circumstances which would suggest otherwise. Our call is to live into that yet unknown, but hope-filled future…knowing that God’s transformative, empowering and sustaining Spirit is still blowing among and within us.

  5. I once heard a story about two shoe-salesmen at the turn of the century. Both were sent to Africa to start businesses by their companies. One got off the boat, and having looked around, went to the telegraph office and sent back a missive saying:

    This place is terrible. No one is wearing shoes anywhere. There is no market here. I am coming back home on the next ship.

    The second man did the same thing, and rushed to the telegraph office where he sent this message:

    This place is wonderful. Please send as many shoes as possible. It is a wide open market, everyone is barefoot, and we can totally corner it.

    I think we Christians live a little more like the first man than the second (I do too if I am honest); but I think God feels really hopeful. Jesus strikes me as someone who saw the potential even when their were tremendous setbacks. The Holy Spirit sees this too.
    Of course we can’t be some doe-eyed pollyanna who blithely anticipates that everything is going to turn out fine no matter what. We can’t expect that people want to buy what we have to sell all the time. Its just that we have something really great and we should be gathering people around to tell them a great story.
    One of the best sermons I ever heard was delivered by a New Testament professor in chapel. He talked about how in the Greek myths we have two records of people escaping the Sirens’ call, hauntingly sad and emotional tunes which lured sailors to their death.
    “Of course,” my professor said, “we’ve all heard about how Odysseus escaped. He plugged his ears and was tied to a mast. A lot of churches are like that. They plug their ears and keep going on. That’s one way to do it.
    “But,” he continued, “The other story is that of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason was told to bring old Orpheus and his lyre on board. When Orpheus heard the muses he began singing.”
    Then my professor mused, “It wasn’t that Orpheus was a better singer or had a great set of musical instruments. He was just an old man with a lyre. These were beautiful women with lovely voices.”
    Then he delivered this line, which I will never forget, “It was that he had a better song to sing. We in the church have a better song to sing than the rest of the world around us.”
    I think we in the church forget that. Thank you for posting the story about Ivan Illich, I agree. I am not scared of the future, but rather interested in what song the church is going to sing. I am glad to have stepped off the boats into contemporary society and said, “There is a great chance for growth here.”

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