All through my first year in seminary, as we studied our way through the Bible, sussing out the meaning of events and the people who lived them, one of my profs would invariably say, “see, again, God calls people who aren’t ready.” Moses was a young man with a stutter; God said, “Go speak to Pharaoh and liberate my people from slavery.” David was the youngest son, a kid really; God sent him out to fight the giant. Paul was on the wrong side of the aisle; God called him to preach Christ. Abraham. Hannah. The Disciples of Jesus. The list is long and amazing.
For 400 years the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt. Their lives were awful. When Moses led them into freedom, I doubt they felt ready; I can just imagine the grumbling that went on under thousands of breathes. Once in the wilderness the grumbling grew into complaining: we don’t like it out here; we want to go back. It took them 40 years of wandering in the wild before they were ready to enter the Promised Land.
People in churches all across America today are caught up in the same kind of wandering and confusion. Ready or not, we’re in the wilderness. Our faith, our ways of being with God and with each other, these don’t make sense today the way they used to. A few churches may still practice magical thinking—we’re doing just fine the way we are. But for them the real challenge is: deep change or slow death. In most churches the challenge is: rapid deep change or rapid death.
The good news is—the Christian faith is all about catalyzing change. Check out these words from His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian World:
Even though our faith may be 2000 years old, our thinking is not. True progress is a balance between preserving the essence of a certain way of life and changing things that are not essential. Christianity was born a revolutionary faith, and we have preserved that…Paradoxically, we have succeeded in not changing the faith that is itself dedicated to change.
In my church we’re having grown-up conversations about that. How do we preserve the essence of the Christian life: loving God, loving neighbor, seeking justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God? How do we keep the faith while having the courage to let go of non-essentials? Is this particular building essential? This logo? This hymnbook? This administrative structure? In my faith tradition founder John Wesley never set out to create the Methodist Church; his objective was to live a Christian life. The church establishment called him a dangerous revolutionary.
I’m praying for the revolutionaries to join forces with us as we dream new dreams and realize new possibilities. That not only sounds essential and true to the faith, it also sounds like fun.
david gilliam, faith united methodist church, austin. for more about faith church, click here.