God is doing a New Thing
At first glance, hope seems to be in short supply. Just turn on the evening news and stories of natural and manmade disasters, wars, people held prisoner and those who left with no choice but to leave home will fill the screen. It’s easy to see how more of us are anxious now than previously, especially since we’ve been through a worldwide pandemic and still have so much residual fear and loss.
In the church too, it can seem like the sky is falling. Giving is down, people have not come back, kids have been left behind – and not on purpose, but because they could not abide one more Zoom class and slowly disconnected from their church communities. The church many of us remember, with packed Sunday School classrooms, abundant choirs and potlucks that go on for miles are gone, and we may feel like we’re left holding the bag. Our volunteers are stretched thin and so are we, as we work to keep the lights on and souls fed.
Hope in the wilderness
That is not, however, the end of the story unless we allow it to be. The truth is that usually in the wilderness God is hard at work. In the waste, the wreckage, the is-this-all-there-is, God is creating and God’s soft voice is calling us into a new way of envisioning the church, into a new way of reconciling all of God’s creation.
I serve a small parish in Western Michigan. We’ve taken the re-opening process at a pretty conservative pace and only now are working to tell the bones of previous ministries to stand up on their feet once more. We hosted an acolyte training several weeks ago, and it was overwhelming to see who showed up. Parents and their kids who will serve in teams, single folks, grown and young, too. At the end of the day, 14 new people were trained to carry the cross and bear the torches – and just this week a new schedule came out filled with people who are ready to serve in the liturgy.
This is hope.
The Gathering of Leaders, an Episcopal organization dedicated to literally “gathering the leaders” of the church, launched pilot weekend gatherings last summer and fall, one for bi-vocational church leaders and lay church leaders. Both of those weekends were packed with people who are passionate about the church and passionate about their ministries. Alongside their clergy counterparts, all of these leaders are really excited about the church and the future.
This, too, is hope.
Choices to make
As we emerge from – or rather, adapt to live with – an endemic virus, we as the church have choices to make. We are on the precipice of something, but none of us quite know what that something is. As we start up old ministries and launch new ones, we have the opportunity to re-think the ways that these things were before, who they served, what they served and more. We can re-tool completely or just make modest edits here and there.
How can we make choir practice more attractive to new choristers? Could a solution be to offer a simple family style supper beforehand and a comfortable place for kids to play while their parents sing? Could it be robing up some of the kiddos and allowing them to process and sit with the choir, even if they can’t quite sing the music?
Another parish in my diocese started a Gay-Straight Alliance Youth Group, open to all in the area, focused on acts of service and building a supportive community. That group has been more successful than any youth group the church has hosted in the last several years. It draws in kids of all ages, adults and allies who desire so deeply to be part of something that is meaningful.
Be part of the new thing God is doing
Every day church leaders, lay and ordained, are popping in and out of virtual and in person meetings and they are visioning the future of the church. They want to stop playing defense, stop running to catch up. They want to create a solid, sustainable, theologically sound idea of what the church can be and then go and make it happen. I know these meetings happen because I get to be part of many of them.
There are certainly many people who are wringing their hands over the decline of the church, and my gentle suggestion to them is to look forward, to look up, and to ask how they can help. This necessarily means letting go of many old structures and laying down ministries that don’t work anymore, so we can take up new ones. It is difficult work, and like Moses, we probably won’t get to enter the Promised Land of the revitalized Episcopal Church. But also like Moses, we are called to lead the people in the directions we believe God is indicating, always listening for the voice from the bush on fire and willing to obey it.
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
The deserts and the wildernesses we find ourselves in are places of deep possibility and abundant hope. There God is doing a new thing. God is calling new acolytes to serve at my parish. God is showing us where we can make changes that have been a long time coming.
Last month on Christmas Eve, when our church doors opened again and the peal of our bells filled our neighborhoods, when our windows shone out, I hope you saw and heard this hope for yourself. It was there in the pews. The hope is us. This is the joy that God created us for, if we will only be brave enough to get to work.
Mother Alicia Hager serves as the Assisting Clergy at Grace Episcopal Church in Holland, Michigan, and as the Community and Communications Curator for the Gathering of Leaders. Alicia lives with her family in Western Michigan, has too many cats, and enjoys reading and writing in her spare time.
- Seeking Refugia: Hope for a World in Climate Crisis by Josh Anderson, Vestry Papers, March 2022
- A Message to Leaders in the Church by Donald Romanik, an ECF Vital Practices blog, January 4, 2021
- Let's Remember Hope... by Amanda Nickles, an ECF Vital Practices blog, July 9, 2020
- Uncomfortable Realities and Hope by Jeremiah Sierra, an ECF Vital Practices blog, November 30, 2015