Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Navigating the Road Ahead: With Anxiety or Humility?

Presbyterian seminary professor Michael Jinkins describes the pejorative attitudes and stereotyping that some older adults display when talking about lower church participation by younger generations, with such accusations or labels as slackers, entitled, short attention span, no ambition, and lacking the idealism, civic duty or activist spirit of earlier young adults (as the older adults remember their generations). [1]

Jinkins calls this defamatory, but attributes it to the sense of anxiety that many older adults in congregations feel regarding the loss of numbers, resources and prestige that their denominations and congregations have experienced.  Yet, Jinkins warns, “Anxiety makes a poor counselor, and age alone makes no one wise.”[2]

Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales, citing organizational scholars and consultants, told the 2011 General Assembly that human organizations decline or fail not so much because of challenges they face but because they hold on too much to past success.

Of course, for mainline, mainstream Protestant denominations, the founding stories of all our faith movements are the stuff of legend in seminary history and polity courses and in an inspiring sermon now and then.  Furthermore, successes from the Baby Boom era, like church expansion and prominent social action, remain in living memory.

Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner says that “dreams of fame and fortune die hard if they die at all.”  L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson quote him in their recent article, “Dark Night of the Church.”[3]  Considering multiple studies of American religion, they give this summary of decline in the mainline, or the in mainstream denominations and congregations:  “Loss of market share.  Conflict.  Absence of young adults.  Financial crisis.”

Whether we are facing the fast plummet of moderate Protestantism or the less frightening plateau of Unitarian Universalist membership numbers, it is clear:  Things have changed for us.  First, we must recognize this fact. Next, we must recognize our anxious longing for a clear explanation and a prescription.  Then we must explore.

This moment is a spiritual in-between time for organizations.  It’s like the “dark night of the soul” which St. John of the Cross famously identified as part of our individual spiritual journeys.  The dark night is not spiritual death and not necessarily clinical depression, but it is a time of uncertainty and of discomfort.  This calls for enough detachment to explore, consider, and create.  I think it calls for humility.

We are humbled in our presumptions that we knew how to do this church growth business very well.  We are humbled in our presumptions that our congregations could operate as we always have and continue in power and local prominence even as the landscape around us has been changing.

Perhaps, the authors write, we have allowed external measures of identity to define us—numbers, money, social prominence, and proud peak moments in our history.   In this “dark night of the church,” we can continue to work and serve, and to be confident that creativity is a key resource for congregational communities.

We can continue to discern our primary mission as congregations, and practice that mission.  To be the church.  To be the religious society.

To be an authentic religious community in the world in which it now exists, and to be an alert community as the world around us continues to shift and change.

[1] Jinkins, Michael.  “Foreword” to Tribal Church:  Ministering to the Missing Generation. Alban Institute, Herndon, VA, 2007, p. viii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson. “Dark Night of the Church.”  Christian Century, December 26, 2012, p. 28.

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