Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Of Tortoises and Hares
I've been thinking about the difference between the zeal - and anxiety - expressed by some of our Evangelical sisters and brothers who seem to get themselves into a "state" about the state of The Episcopal Church.
They seem to equate "growth" - as in increase in membership - with health. They twist themselves into absolute pretzels about numbers and formulas and growth charts and time lines.
One adage goes that if one has 'planted' a church and, after three years, one does not have an ASA (average Sunday attendance) of 60-100, one should proclaim the adventure as a failure, close up shop and move on.
They forecast dire predictions for TEC - "the hemorrhage continues unabated" - and scream that we are losing an average of 1,000 members a week. Some of them do this with absolute glee, but more simply ring their hands and criticize the leadership of the church for 'not doing more.'
Their 'missionary zeal' is not unknown in scripture and, in fact, it is quite laudable. Except, of course, when it is used to 'shame and blame', and used to bolster the position that we are not growing because of the 'progressive' movement of the church.
There's a great deal of anxiety about 'mission'.
Got a problem? They got a program.
On the other hand, we've also heard, at least in this diocese, a great deal about 'congregational development'. I understand this to mean that 'congregational development' is a way to increase membership from within - to build up the infrastructure and membership base of the church.
Lumped under this heading come things like 'evangelism' - which is pretty much cultural marketing programs dressed up in a baptismal outfit, understanding congregational size and character (Arlin Rothage's stuff), parish life-cycle stuff, how to identify long and short term goals and how to write a mission statement, dealing with conflict, along with leadership development - mostly of clergy.
Got a problem? They got a program.
It's not that I'm not concerned about either mission or congregational development. I am. But, I think we're missing a few fundamental things.
I think we have to stop, back up a bit and see the bigger picture. I think we need to look at what's happening in the context of our times. Not only do I mean that in terms of what's been happening in our culture over the last 40 years, I think we don't take seriously how that has affected the cultural climate of our churches.
There are lots of factors which have colluded to make church community in general and community worship in particular irrelevant to many. Parenting styles, the 'Age of Anesthesia', and 'affluenza,have all called into question the nature and importance of God in our lives and the relevance of being part of a community of faith.
Let us also not dismiss the current "troubles' in the communion. Instead of seeing doom and gloom, might this not simply be a time of 'pruning' in the vineyard. Is God doing a 'new thing' - not just in TEC, but for those who are leaving?
It's as simple as the new math I almost flunked in the 6th grade: If you ask the wrong question, you're not going to get the right answer. Actually, the "right answer" isn't as important as the questions you asked to get to the answer.
Then, there's the old adage of real estate: "Location, location, location."
I've never really understood the phenomenon but it can not be denied that people in the South understand 'church' differently than in the North. Even Episcopal Churches in places like Memphis, Mobile, and Atlanta see 700-1,000 'bums in the pew' on any given Sunday, while in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, we think we're 'fat and happy' if we have 250 - 300.
I see the 'smirks' on the faces of my sisters and brothers to the South and I admit to some 'pew envy'. However, I also know that a Northern Pine would not grow in Alabama. Neither would a Palm Tree grow in Vermont.
It's a different climate, a different soil, different people.
While programs like "Alpha" may work in the Diocese of Dallas, it would certainly not fly in the Diocese of Newark. Then again, "Via Media," which has been well received here would probably fall flat and stay off the desks of most of the bishops in the Dioceses Florida.
There's lots more to this issue. This is just what I could think of, sitting here, without even breaking a sweat.
I've been thinking lately of Aesop's Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare as a modern parable of the state of the church.
I think the Evangelicals are the anxious Hares. Goodness knows, I've spent a good amount of time in that 'rabbit warren'. But lately, I've been thinking a lot about the Tortoises I've known and loved. I'm beginning to think that there is much wisdom in the adage: 'Slow and steady wins the race'.
It's not that I'm not concerned about the state of the church. I am. But, I think we've been asking all the wrong questions and trying to "fix" the problem without first taking the time to make an accurate assessment and diagnosis.
For example, instead of asking, "How can we ordain LGBT people or bless their relationships?" why not ask, "What might God be doing, at this time and place in our history, in bringing so many LGBT people to the church? What can they teach us about what we might have taken for granted about human sexuality, covenanted relationships, commitment and service?"
If we started with those questions, we might end up in an entirely different place.
To be fair, we should also ask, "What is God doing in bringing all the orthodites into the church at this time? What can we learn from them about conserving, and their perspective of scripture and their passion and zeal?"
What if we started paying attention to that which God has already given us - the 'bums' that are already in the pew? What if, instead of placing all our anxiety in programs for 'mission' and 'congregational development', we decided to also invest in deepening spirituality and prayer?
What might happen if we tended to the spirits that are in the vines already growing in the vineyard? Made them stronger? Helped them grow deeper?
Instead of answering the question, "Got a problem?" with "I got a program," what if we asked:
Got a problem?
And the answer were: I got a prayer.
I just got off the phone with a parishioner who was telling me of a problem she's having at work. We talked for about 20 minutes and she said, "This has been helpful, thank you. Now , I should get back to work."
"Wait," I said, "before you go, let's have a little prayer, shall we?"
"Prayer?" she said. "You mean, now? On the phone?"
"Yes," I said. "Would that be okay?"
She was still a bit befuddled, but said, "Sure. I mean, okay."
So, we prayed. I have no idea what I said, but after I said, "Amen," there was this very loud silence at the end of my receiver.
"Hello?" I said, "Are you still there?"
She was weeping softly as she said, "Yes, yes. I'm still here."
I let her compose herself for a few seconds and then I heard her say, "You know, maybe if we had prayed at the beginning of this conversation, we wouldn't have needed to have this conversation."
Well, I think the conversation helped to better frame the prayer, but she does have a point.
Maybe if we spent more time in silence, we'd be able to hear God's answer to our prayers. Instead of constant chatter, what if we developed some 'consistent contemplation'? You know, times when people can come together not to think or talk or socialize with each other as much as listening for the Spirit in our midst.
I know. I sound like a Quaker. Well, you know what? Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Many of the solutions to the social problems in this country - like civil rights and suffrage - were led by Quakers.
We could learn a few things by being still and listening, along with our glorious music and eloquent books of prayers - common or uncommon.
So, while I enjoy my relationship with the Hares in my life, I'm going to start celebrating my "inner Tortoise" - and encouraging others to do that, as well.
"Slow and steady wins the race."
I think that's my new mantra for 2009.