I’m attending the School of Congregational Development this week in Evanston, Illinois, and in just the first few hours I am struck by a radical disconnect in our church. There is such energy and passion here. There is a deep vision for transformation of individual lives, congregations, communities and the world. There is a huge wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise. There is a universal dedication to the idea that we can be better, that we must be better. There is voracious hunger to learn and a compelling desire to grow the church.
But there is also a saddening and maddening cynicism — hallway conversations about the many ways that “this won’t work,” or “all this sounds great, but it won’t work back home,” or “I don’t get any support for this from my conference.” The people here — on both sides of the podium — are some of the best and brightest in the denomination. As an observer (I sat in the balcony of the church for last night’s service) this is an incredible witness to what The United Methodist Church can be. Old, young, Asian, Anglo, African American, Hispanic/Latino, clergy, laity, men, women — no truer or more powerful example of our pluralism and multiculturalism could be hoped for. There is a beautiful gathering of God’s people at this conference.
And the leaders offer visionary and challenging messages — messages of both hope and sacrificial cost, messages that call for risky and radical change, messages intended to discomfort and drive us from our safe sanctuaries into the world. Messages that attack complacency, comfort with the status quo, and cultural accommodation are the norm. Everyone applauds and cheers — this is the ideal crowd for this kind of vision. But the cynicism comes from the realization that there is more to effective change and embracing multiculturalism than accepting its importance and value. It is one thing to say that multiculturalism is important and quite another to equip people to lead inclusiveness, tolerance, and true acceptance. Everyone is on board with the need to reach new faith audiences, but it is quite something else opening our hearts, minds, and doors for real. Desiring relevancy and delivering relevancy are not the same thing.
What we need to do and why we need to do it are important messages, but skepticism kicks in when people begin to explore the practical possibilities for deep change in their own settings. Everyone wants to see new faith communities launched and new churches planted, but there is deep concern of launching failures and planting more of what we already have that isn’t working.
And it’s not just about tools and techniques, either. There are a whole host of tried and tested tools, assessments, surveys, exercises, and resources. The gripping need is for something more basic — how to talk to people about controversial things, how to lead change and navigate resistance in productive ways, how to overcome ingrained ignorance and prejudice about people who are different, and how to motivate people (rather than manipulate them).
The great divide between our vision and our reality gapes ever wider, basically because there is such pressure to deliver immediate results. The spectres of declining numbers, aging congregations, lost credibility haunt us, and we’re embarrassed that with each passing day our denomination fails to resemble the changing dominant multi-culture more and more. We want desperately to be a different church, but most people wonder if we have the time, energy, resources, and connectional support to turn things around. Outside of the denomination, those with no church affiliation question whether we truly have any inclination or intention for real change.
The School of Congregational Development is a bright glimmer of hope. There is vision. There is energy. There are tools available to faciliate change. Now what we need are the deep fundamentals of real transformation and the time and support necessary to see a “new thing” emerge. Deep change is hard. Deep change takes time. I remember Stanley Hauerwas saying in 1978 that anyone just entering the multiculturalism conversation was fifteen years behind the times. Many are still entering the conversation today — 46 years behind the times. And to see true, respectful, loving multiculturalism become the norm we will need to continue to invite people to the conversation for years to come. There are literally millions of people our church can reach, but currently doesn’t. We need encouragement to reach out, to serve, to grow — always have, always will. My only wish is that every leader — lay and clergy — could experience the School of Congegational Development, or something like it, at least once a year. You can’t help to feel proud, excited, and hopeful when you see such an ingathering of people who love God, love the church, and are willing to love the world as well.