We live in anxious times.
It doesn’t take a keen observer of the news to feel it. It is always there during an election, but it feels more acute this time. The stakes are so high, it seems, that Canada is already offering a new home for the losing side. If you have to go somewhere, there are worst places.
As someone who spends most of my waking hours either at a church, reading about church, thinking or writing about what it means to be the church, all this feeling of anxiety isn’t unfamiliar.
It flows from our fear – the fear of what we can’t control or predict, the fear that the ground beneath us is shifting, the fear that the ground might not be what we thought it was or what it always has been.
It is, in fact, more than a feeling. It is reality. The ground on which we stand is shifting. What were once our strengths we now experience as liabilities. We don’t have the same influence we used to, even here in the Bible Belt. The institutions and structures we created to enable ministry have become burdens and obstacles to continuing it. Our experience isn’t the answer because the culture and church where we gained it no longer exist apart from our memories.
The shifting landscape means we aren’t sure where we are headed and what exactly we should do. The only thing we are certain of is that we don’t like uncertainty.
I was struck last week at how friends from another denomination were reporting on the exact same arguments and frustrations and battles at their annual meeting as we did at ours a couple of months ago. Different names on the signs and different meeting places, but the same divisions, the same heartbreak, the same falling short of the city of God.
When it comes the church, anxiety is a universal experience.
The uncertainty tempts us to seek our salvation in new strategies and well researched plans – a third way, a new approach, a call to action, a way forward, you’ve heard them all. But a surplus of plans and consultants hasn’t released us from the prison of anxiety and uncertainty.
That’s because the antidote to the problems isn’t a new strategy – it is faithfulness. The firm foundation we are looking for in the midst of uncertainty won’t come from marketing slogans or complicated plans. Instead, it is found where it always has been – in answering Jesus’ call to follow. The call to fidelity is the call that created the church and it is the call that will see the church through.
The way beyond fear is no more and no less than the Way and the pattern of life that Jesus handed down to us. It is found in worship that reorients our life by centering it in God, in spiritual formation that reminds us that everything we have is a gift and in working to make the world more just and more like God envisions it. It is acting from our core conviction that everyone was created in the Image of God and it is living by grace that in the best times and in the worst times God is with us.
It is the Way that prevents us from chasing lesser things and it is the Way that enables us to stay true to our purpose and calling. It is the Way that reminds us of why we actually exist in the first place – to bear witness to God’s love, to make the world a better place for all of God’s children, to enjoy a community where everyone can find and use the gifts God has given them and to help one another live lives that look more like the life Jesus lived and the one he envisions for us.
We find our way in this complicated time for the Church by living into the rhythms of these convictions – the Way and the pattern of life shaped by gift and responsibility, by confession and forgiveness, by absolution and reconciliation, by salvation through faith and membership in God’s beloved community.
Make no mistake, this Way isn’t easy. It requires a trust and a radical commitment in the victory of God. But why not – don’t we say that the church is of God and give our lives in the promise that the church, the bride of Christ, will be persevered until the end of time?
It’s probably unrealistic to think that the anxiety we live with in the church is going away any time soon. As dramatic as this might seem, the culture will shift again – there will be new challenges and more obstacles, new uncertainties and more chances to live in fear.
But the way forward is the same as it always been, and it begins with answering a charge – Follow Me.