Dear Working Preacher,
Something’s gotta change. We all know that. Patterns of congregational attendance and membership have declined for decades, and precipitously so over the last few years.
Of late, I have been reading, speaking and writing a lot about our need, in particular, to take stock of the changes in our culture that demand changes in how we worship, preach and organize ourselves as the church. For instance, we need to recognize that people’s lives are much busier, even frantic, than a generation or two ago. “Time-saving” innovations like email have all but eliminated any sense of Sabbath, and work, as a result, knows no bounds. Similarly, youth sports and other activities that used to treat Sundays as sacred, or at least family time, have now claimed that part of the calendar as prime real estate for additional practice or tournaments.
In addition, the culture of duty—doing things, including going to church, simply because we’re supposed to—has eroded into a culture of discretion—where, given all the options, one exercises discretion to determine what activities are most rewarding. Further, the culture no longer has a vested interest in supporting church participation. As a result, the emerging generation does not and will not go to church simply because their parents did, but only if that hour on Sunday meaningfully connects to the other 167 hours of the week.
All of this has led me to suggest that we need to move from traditional “performative” ministry—where the pastor is responsible for doing the central tasks of the Christian life like interpreting Scripture, connecting faith and life, and sharing our faith—to more “formative” ministry—where the job of the preacher is to help people get better at doing these things themselves. Which has led me, as you’ll know from reading this weekly epistle, to experimenting with a more participatory form of preaching.
We are aided by God’s powerful Spirit, who will blow us places we’d never imagined.
Most often, the folks I speak with are grateful for a framework that helps them make sense of this new world in which we find ourselves and for concrete suggestions about what we can do about it. At the same time, all this change can be overwhelming. A common refrain I’ve heard from congregation leaders is that this isn’t the world for which they were trained. Moreover, when we are asked to preach and lead in a different way, we may feel anxious about our competency, as we’re switching from skills and practices we’ve honed over the years to others that are less familiar and with which we have less confidence.
Nor, of course, is it only ministers who feel this way. Our people also worry about the future of their church and about their children and grandchildren’s relationship to the church in particular. Concerns about attendance coupled with others about paying the bills, keeping up the building, diminishing Sunday Schools and more all take their toll. Such anxiety can be paralyzing and, indeed, a pall of apprehension attends many of the congregations we serve.
Which is why this familiar passage from John has never been more important!
While we know it best for the centrality of John 3:16 in both our theology and popular imagination, there are two other elements I would also like to highlight, each of which is anchored in, and expands the implications of, the love of God so clearly expressed in 3:16.
The first is the freedom granted to those who are born of the Spirit. Notice this part of the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus. When Jesus says that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, taking his metaphor literally. And so Jesus then contrasts life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. And one of the key characteristics of life in the spirit is an element of freedom. We are not bound by the same concerns of those who live according to the flesh because our future and fate are sealed by God’s tremendous love. “Do not be astonished,” Jesus says to Nicodemus, “that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I think this declaration that the Spirit—and those born of the Spirit—blows where it will gives us tremendous freedom when we think about how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the age. Part of what is so anxiety provoking about this time is that it feels like there are no road maps. Worship that lasted an hour. Communion once a month (or, later, weekly). A theologically grounded lectionary. The three-point sermon. An annual stewardship campaign. These weren’t just useful practices, they were reliable patterns by which to organize our life that provide a clear road map, and at times even recipe, about what it meant to be the church and, by extension, a pastor. When we give these up, however, we feel like we are sailing in uncharted waters or driving down a foreign and forbidding road.