When I was a child, we spent weekends at the lake with my grandparents. A couple times a year, the lake “turned over”—warmer water on the surface sank to the bottom and the bottom water rose to the top. That put oxygen into the depths of the lake, revitalized the aquatic systems and kept the lake healthy.
As kids, we just thought it was cool. The lake water changed color. It was a murky, muddy mess. It looked like we lived on a different planet. We didn’t realize many fish died in the process or that the lake was healthier after it cleared. Regardless, it’s a great metaphor for today’s church.
Every part of our culture has gone through, or is going through “inversion.” I constantly hear people lament, “the world’s turned upside down.” Some of us think it is cool. None of us can see through the mud. A few of us will not survive the process.
Addressing all the cultural shifts that muddy our ministry waters is impossible in this space, but here are a three that make “church water" particularly murky:
- “Spiritual But Not Religious” is not only accepted now, it is a source of pride and belonging. The reasons and practices of SBNRs are as complex and as varied as the individuals themselves. They are an increasing reality of our time, and a cultural force to understand if we are answering our call to make disciples. (See Belief Without Borders for the comprehensive study and conclusions. You’ll need a good beer and a good friend with whom to read it. The information can be discouraging.)
- Sporadic church attendance or no church attendance is culturally acceptable. (Read more here, if you want.) Church folk believe the vast majority of people are comfortable with and in church. We are wrong. The life of regular Christian practice in community is now the exception, not the rule. And we know how hard it is to do something new or uncomfortable—leaving congregations waiting for visitors who will never cross the threshold.
- Even the most faithful of our congregations have lost the language and understanding that undergirds faith practice. The practice of faith has become far less about transformation, reconciliation, and redemption--shalom for all people—and far more about a private, personal feeling of being “taken care of” by God. Christian Smith’s Soul Searching and it’s resulting description of the American God as “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deity” is helpful in understanding this.) If we don’t reclaim our identity as “new community” and learn to talk about our trust in God’s way as transformative (and believing that reality as well), we don’t have much to offer a world who places their faith and trust in their own personal opinions and experiences.
We are not swimming in the same water, my friends. Several prominent theologians and scholars have suggested that faith practices go through major “inversions” about every 500 years. That’s us.
When I looked at my original job description, I laughed. I could only wish to do that job. I’d be finished and home by noon on Tuesday. But we, in this time and place, are called into a murky inversion. The way through is “research, create, try, learn…begin again.” The foundation is that God is at work well before us, asking us to follow right into the middle of the inversion. That’s where we belong. That’s where our work will be done.
Dir. of Christian Formation, Forest Hills Presbyterian,