August 17, 2021

Watching the Weather

“What’s going on in the news?” my father asked a shopkeeper on a beautiful summer’s day in my childhood. “Well,” the shopkeeper replied, “not much aside from the hurricane that’s going to hit us tomorrow.”

There was no sarcasm in the shopkeeper’s response. We were staying on a rural island off the coast of Maine in the days before internet and cable news. It was easy to become disconnected. In fact, disconnection was part of the attraction to island life. We received our news through the original social network: Neighbors telling neighbors what they needed to know.

I returned to that same island this summer as part of my sabbatical in the hope of finding another weather report – this time for the church.

According to the Pew Research Forum, more than half of adults in each of the four states that comprise central and northern New England – Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont – report being unaffiliated with a religious tradition or being of no particular religious tradition at all. Almost half of adults in each of these states report attending religious services seldomly or never.

As the rector of a large Episcopal parish in a place where the traditional model of “doing church” is still doing fine, I wonder: Will this be our future? Will our buildings ultimately become restaurants and art museums, offices and apartments like the ones I saw driving through the villages of Mid-Coast Maine?

At Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis, we have strong attendance at worship and formation, good financial support, and meaningful community engagement. My sabbatical follows a successful capital campaign and facility restoration project.

The weather is fine for us, but storm clouds are beginning to gather. In the eight years that I have served in Memphis: Our local newspaper has stopped publishing its weekly religion section. Sunday morning sports have worked their way into our kids’ schedules. Our diocese closed two of its 31 congregations.

Again, I wonder: What can churches that currently find themselves in positions of strength do now to prepare ourselves for a future that may look very different from our past?

I approach this question as a practitioner and an institutionalist, as the full-time rector of a strong congregation and as one who sees continuing value in the traditions and structures that have defined our experience of the church for centuries. But, I also approach this question as a pragmatist, as one who is willing to look at our inheritance with a critical eye and acknowledge the reality of our changing circumstances.

The hurricane that snuck up on us in my childhood was the first full-fledged hurricane to hit New England in six years and only the sixth in forty years. Even though we lacked experience with this type of storm, we knew there was nothing we could do to stop it. We had to prepare. So it is for congregations that currently find themselves in positions of strength: Cultural secularism is coming, even in places that have never had to deal with it before.

Better programming will not be enough to weather this storm. Attracting more young families will not be enough. The church needs to adopt an entirely new mindset.

The time to prepare for a storm is before the weather changes. These are the questions that congregations like mine need to be asking now:

  • In the future, people’s expectations of the church will be different. Do we know what those expectations are and are we ready to respond to them?
  • In the future, people’s understanding of power will be different. Have we started incorporating “new power” into our largely “old power” systems?
  • In the future, people’s relationship with their money will be different. How can we respond to diverse motivations for giving?
  • In the future, people’s engagement with the church will be different. What can we learn from the experience of church leaders in now-secular ministry contexts?

I will address each of these questions in a subsequent essay, but here’s the bottom line: The truth of the Gospel does not change, but people do and the church must.

Thinking too deeply about the future of denominational Christianity can feel a lot like visiting with the Ghost of Christmas Future. None of the projections are good. But, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can reject the future that seems inevitable and build the future that we would rather see. “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be,” Scrooge asks his third visitor, “or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Our new, secular age still needs what the church has to offer – faith, hope, love, grace, forgiveness, selflessness, transcendence, structure – perhaps now more than ever. The church’s only challenge is figuring out how to share its treasure in an unfamiliar environment.

Church of the Holy Communion’s vestry and I will reflect on these questions in the year ahead, and I hope that other vestries and rectors will do the same. Let’s take this journey together. Let’s be motivated and intentional, courageous and bold. Let’s be resurrection people and find our way to vibrancy and relevance in this new, more secular era.