This morning, a friend and I were grabbing coffee a short walk down the road from the Lutheran Seminary where I have my office. As we moved from pleasantries and life updates to more serious conversation, we quickly got to talking about just how rapidly trends of change have progressed in our congregations over the past few years. Gradual Sunday School decline progressed to wholesale empty classrooms. Decreasing Holy Week attendance accelerated to less people attending worship than those leading. Competition with school activities turned to losing that battle entirely. And this was one of our healthier churches! Meanwhile, they shared, most of the congregation couldn't even admit they saw these things. No need to do anything drastic. They insisted that everything was fine!
I quickly commented that the amount of wishful thinking - and even denial - at play in many congregations today has been growing at an exponential rate. It is hard to understate just how drastically the world has changed around us in the past several decades. Although every age experiences its share of changes, we are living in a period not simply of rapid change – but of epochal change.
In his book on Christian Leadership in uncharted territory, author and pastor Tod Bolsinger compares the times the church is living in to the experience of Lewis and Clark on their famous journey westward into uncharted territory. They were in search of the Northwest Passage, a navigable river route from the headwaters of the Missouri River to the West Coast, but instead they found themselves standing before the Rocky Mountains – a landscape none of them had either anticipated or prepared for.
In comparing their experience of disorientation, confusion, and loss to the church's today, Tod writes, “The story of the Corps of Discovery is the driving metaphor for our present moment in history. In every field, in every business, in every organization, leaders are rapidly coming to the awareness that the world in front of us is radically different from everything behind us.”
This is the crucial truth that many of us miss in the church today, a truth that sets the base camp for where we must begin our journey. What is ahead of us is nothing like what lies behind us. In the wisdom of many 12 Step programs, the first step to healing is always some version of admitting that you have a problem and are powerless to fix it alone. In the same way, it is only by realizing that the church is in uncharted territory that we can begin to do the work that is absolutely necessary for the church to move forward into this new, unknown landscape.
Tod describes this position poignantly by using his analogy to the voyage of Lewis and Clark, saying, “Like Meriwether Lewis sitting on the crest of Lemhi Pass and looking at a landscape he couldn’t have imagined, Christian leaders today are sitting in meetings, reading reports and conversing with colleagues about a brutal truth: All that we have assumed about leading Christian organizations, all that we have been trained for, is out of date. We have left the map, we are in uncharted territory, and it is different than we expected. We are experienced river rafters who must learn to be mountaineers.”
There is a deep truth to what Tod lifts up in his book – the landscape upon which we do our work has changed, yet we are still trying to use the same tools, maps, and training that we brought with us from the previous territory. Sitting down the street from a seminary, it was striking to think how ill-prepared so many leaders in the church today are for today's new, uncharted territory. Not just because the tools needed have changed, but because they very questions we must ask are different.
After all, how do you canoe over mountains?
“You don’t,” Tod answers concisely in his book, “If you want to continue forward, you change. You adapt. We ditch the canoes, ask for help, find horses, and cross the mountains. And when the time comes, we make new boats out of burnt trees.” What the church may lack – and be so desperately in need of today – may not be any fancy set of tools or a shiny new curriculum. What the church so desperately needs today is a sense of its identity not as institution, but as movement – a willingness to leave the well-mapped territory that is so familiar behind and strike out with a renewed spirit of adventure.
What we will encounter is uncharted territory. And the unknown is always scary. But it is also wildly exciting. If we proceed with wisdom, leaning strongly on each other and going forward with an open spirit, God has great surprises for us in those distant mountains. By learning from those people who are already living in this territory, being open to the new experiences that will inevitably happen along the way, and leading with the vulnerable humility of those who know they don’t have all the answers – we will have the privilege to be part of the exciting, holy future that God has in store for us.
And isn’t that exciting?