We live in a time of tremendous change within institutional religion, even without the pending election of a new Pope in the Roman Catholic Church! In many ways, the forms of religion in which our parents and grandparents found tremendous meaning and comfort no longer speak to us. I believe this is due at least in part to tremendous change that science and technology have brought over the last fifty years. I want to be clear that those changes are not bad things at all! Who among us would say that the advances in health care we have seen as a result of the technology explosion is a bad thing?
Human beings tend to deplore change because change reminds us that life moves ever forward and part of that movement is the reality that we all get sick, we all age, and we all die. To distract ourselves from that reality, we employ fictional beliefs that seek to convince us that while every one else may be subject to old age, sickness, and death, we ourselves are somehow exempt due to our permanent, unchanging identity. That system of denial works pretty well until something around us changes and we are forced yet again to confront our own mortality. When we encounter change in the systems that help us make sense of our world we are especially unsettled because the very ground under our feet seems to be shaking and threatening to open up and swallow us into an abyss of uncertainty.
The Church as we knew it is dying, and I believe it is dying for two reasons. The first is that it no longer speaks to many people under the age of fifty. It has not been vigilant in updating its message or practices so they speak in a way that contemporary people find accessible. Language evolves over time and it evolves even faster in the Internet era. A Church that uses archaic language that is difficult for contemporary people to understand has chosen to not speak to the very people it claims to want to serve. Having made that choice, it really cannot with any integrity at all wonder why its pews are empty, can it?
The second reason is that the institutional Church has failed at technology. Institutions tend to be slow to respond to new trends, waiting to see whether they catch on before even starting to investigate them. This leaves the Church behind the learning curve on anything that becomes popular. There are still individual churches without websites and Facebook pages, the contemporary equivalent of choosing to have your church opt out of the phone book in the 1970s. A mainline Christian denomination was delighted in the late days of the 1990s to release what they believed was a cutting edge worship service using the music of a popular rock group from the early to mid 1980s. I don’t mean to seem unkind, but the truth is that even Churches that self-identify as progressive in their theology are most often behind the times culturally and technologically.
Have you noticed the common thread between the two reasons outlined above? The common thread is fear.
Churches tend to be afraid that if they institute meaningful change they will lose the members they have. As membership declines, this fear grows. If we are honest in light of the truth of old age, sickness, and death we will see that even if we never change a thing our membership will decline. Whether people leave because they don’t like the new music or because we just held their funeral, people will leave. The answer isn’t taking out the pews and installing chairs, the Church equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, though there isn’t anything wrong with redecorating the space every one hundred years or so. The answer is in meeting the needs of the people by travelling with them on their spiritual journey while being flexible enough to speak to their evolving needs and concerns.
That, in a nutshell, is the mission of the UAC. To be effective in that mission we must be ever vigilant about slipping into pat, easy answers that worked last year. We must be in touch with the culture, not fighting against it. We must realize that the answers to the hard questions of life are seldom addressed by the Ten Commandments and in fact are much better address in the far less concrete metaphorical teaching stories of Jesus called parables. When a child has received a cancer diagnosis, for example, the answer isn’t found in a Bible verse but in loving, compassionate human presence.
The UAC way of doing ministry is difficult to systematize because the truth of life is not an orderly jigsaw puzzle that fits together in only one way. We remain open to the truth of your life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and commit not to perfection (any human being committing to perfection is being dishonest with themselves), but to presence; not to answers, but to holding open space in which to discern the questions; not to telling you what you need, but to listening to what you need; not to escapism, but to full engagement with life. We invite you to join us on the exciting journey that is life!
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