In the previous post I hinted at the problem of the depressed church which I will take back up here. I also said that the first general observation regarding “innovation” is that it never ends. It always demands more. The second, and very closely related observation, is that innovation produces enormous and constant pressure to make something happen. I imagine some pushback on this post and the last: Easy for you to say all of this, Phil, you don’t understand the state of my church at the moment. What, should I just let it decline? Not do ANYTHING?! A lot of us (again, including myself in the mix) wonder, if we’re not innovating, what on earth will we be doing? If we’re not constantly creating and improving systems, processes, and programs, than what? If I say studying, praying, preaching, administering the sacraments and visitation, it just doesn’t seem like enough. It’s not that any of us are against these things, of course, but practically, how is that supposed to get people into the building? Grow a church? Attract the disinterested? We need more. Or so we tell ourselves (or, perhaps, allow the wider culture to tell us). Now, I do want to say that if you’re creating a new program at the moment, I’m not demonizing you. I have some ideas that I’m excited to launch too. Creating, again, is good. But we can’t perpetually create new things, even if they’re good things. And here I should perhaps add that hopefully the things we do create will be rooted in our study, prayer, preaching, administration of the sacraments and visitation, since these things are the basis of our pastoral vocation and therefore the soil of our pastoral creativity. Again, most wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Still, how do you think it would go if, in an interview for a new church position, these things – study, prayer, preaching, administering the sacraments and visitation – were your answers to questions about “vision” for the future? While no one I know would say these things aren’t important, they aren’t what people are (generally) wanting to hear in an interview. I’m not picking on anyone here, for the record, it’s just a cycle that most of us have found ourselves in.
Now the dark side of all of this is the belief, even if unstated, that if we don’t do new, nothing will happen. Or, worse than nothing will happen – we’ll decline. Part of what I hope to accomplish in this series of posts is to insist that we can, and must, increase our trust in the work of the Spirit to use what appears to be foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21, 27) in order to see God’s work accomplished. Truthfully, we don’t have to make anything happen. We really don’t. And, honestly, we can’t anyway. But what we can do is faithfully get in the flow and rhythm of what God is already up to and trust the work of the Spirit to accomplish what God intends.
I’ve become quite interested in Charles Taylor’s work, A Secular Age, over the past few years. In particular, I’m interested in it’s intersection with Pentecostalism. How was the emergence of Pentecostalism in the early 1900’s an interruption of disenchantment and how was it a collusion with it? But alas, that’s for another space. Anyway, I recently learned that Andrew Root, a scholar who interacts with Taylor’s work, has a podcast called New Time Religion, and so I started to listen. In his third episode, “Mr. Rogers, the Frye Festival, and the Age of Authenticity,” he said some things I haven’t been able to shake. First, drawing on Taylor, he began to talk about identity and how, rather recently in history, we have been given the ability, in a sense, to choose our own identity rather than settle into our prescribed roles in life. There is something good and beautiful about this, of course, because relationship and equality end up becoming more and more important.1 We become more authentically who we feel we are. However, this new freedom of identity – the ability to choose our destiny by defining ourselves – comes at a cost. Andy’s co-host, Derek Tronsgard, summarizes Andy’s thoughts:
“In the age of authenticity we are given space to present our identity to the world. We are given the gift of freedom to choose for ourselves who we want to be. But because this rests solely on our own shoulders, there is a tradeoff. There’s a burden that we have to carry. In created and curating identities, it’s hard work. It’s tiring. And as the world moves faster and faster…it begins to take a toll.”Andrew Root, “Mr. Rogers, the Frye Festival, and the Age of Authenticity,” May 23 2019, in New Time Religion with Dr. Andrew Root. A Church podcast for a Secular Age, 24 min, https://www.newtimereligion.org
Why are we so driven to innovate? Because we’re trying to shape our identities; tell the world who we are. This is no simple task though as there is a burden to shoulder in this self-identification process. But this burden, explains Root, is not simply on the shoulders of the individual. No. Churches too are trying to create or reshape their identity. ‘Who are we? Who are we trying to reach?2 What’s our vision? Our mission? The unique imprint of our church in our city?’ On and on the identity questions go. Crouch says this (pre-pandemic, by the way):
“I actually think the issue facing the church right now most broadly is that the church as communal…institutions…is depressed…It is a time where we have to kind of re-present an identity, and we can’t keep up…So I worry that the call… ‘the church has to change, the church has to change,’ can actually come across as…curate an identity new.”Root, “Mr. Rodges…”
The church as a whole is feeling the need to do what we all as individuals feel we need to do: create and re-create our identity. Root goes on to say that the people in our congregations will normally agree with the need to do this: ’Yes! The church needs to change!’ The problem, though, is that they are already busy, often to the point of depression, trying to curate their own identities and therefore don’t have time to help the church in its self-and-culturally-imposed perpetual need to change. And so Pastors, and the local church body as a whole, feel depressed precisely because of the felt need to constantly reinvent themselves, but without the energy and people to actually do so. Why the inability? Because in order to do the innovative work, the church needs its people to do the work, but the people, who also feel that the church needs to constantly reinvent itself, don’t have time or energy to pull it off. They’re too busy trying to build their own identities. And here is the burden of the “age of authenticity,” according to Root: “it can create deep levels of institutional and individual exhaustion that can easily turn into depression.” (ibid.)
And so, in this pandemic age, an age already fraught with frustration and weariness, is innovation the great solution? The thing to help bring us forward? I don’t think so. I think it’s a burden on our already too full shoulders. As I hope I’ve made clear, I’m not against creating. I’m not against new programs, and new ideas. I just think its time to get off the treadmill. It’s time to rest and encourage each other that Jesus will take care of Jesus’ church.
There is a crucial interplay between creation and rest. God created; God rested. We too create, but goodness, it’s time to rest. Not just for a few weeks in the summer, either. We need work out of rest; be people of rest. This rest is not so that we can return to more and better. This rest is a way of life. Good musicians will often tell you this: “less is more.” Young musicians spend their time trying to play as many notes as fast as they can. As you mature as a musician, though, you learn that the space (what you don’t play) is at least as important as what you do play, and you therefore spend the rest of your life unlearning the speed and overabundance of notes you thought were so important when you were young. You learn to find beauty in the space. Play from there. I think that us church leaders, in a significant move against culture, need to learn this too: less is more. This will require a significant unlearning for us all. But friends, we really don’t have to constantly innovate. Instead, we can rest and lean into the speed and rhythm of the Spirit and minister from there. I hope this is not felt as condemnation by anyone. It’s simply meant to encourage you (and me) that we can breathe, because God will do what God does. We don’t have to make it happen. Seriously. We don’t.
Last Saturday morning as I was praying the Daily Office, I was struck by the Collect for Saturdays, which, by the way, repeats each Saturday. Notice how the prayer locates our Sunday ministry in particular, and our rest more generally:
“Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I think almost all of us feel the pull towards innovation. It’s been slowly built into us these past five-hundred or so years (and sped up significantly in recent years). But I’m praying that we can unlearn this, and learn instead to lean into a deeper rest, both from our work, but also from “all earthly anxieties,” and minister in deep trust from there.
*For those wondering what happened to Newbigin – we’ll return to him in the next two posts.
**By the way, Andrew Root has a new book coming out March 1st called Churches and the Crisis of Decline: A Hopeful Practical Ecclesiology for a Secular Age, in which it looks like he’ll deal with some of the above. (Canadian Amazon link. American Amazon link).
1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 179
2 This, I believe, is a problematic question – but that’s for another day.