Archive for July, 2009

Flying the Friendly Denominational Skies

July 4, 2009

The very first time I flew on an airplane was when I was 25 years old.  I flew from my home in Indiana to the west coast to check out a seminary I was thinking about attending.  I remember how exciting it was, and how I felt about getting to do something for the very first time.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot more flying, and frankly, it’s not as exciting as it originally was.  My flights often get delayed, I have to make new arrangements part way through my trip, I get to my destination later than I had planned, and sometimes my luggage doesn’t make it.  In fact, this happened to me again just this past week.

I ended up with three extra hours sitting in an airport.  It was frustrating, but it did get me thinking.  I started to wonder if people’s frustration with denominations today is similar to our frustrations with flying.  I hear people who get irritated with the church because change comes so slow, we feel like we are just sitting around not accomplishing anything, and we wonder when (or if) we will ever get to our destination.  (Just like flying).  We get upset when we get delayed through no fault of our own, we watch others walking by and making progress while we are just sitting there, and when there’s a breakdown in the system that we have to depend on somebody else to fix.  (Just like flying).  We get agitated when we feel helpless or powerless to fix the situation, when we seem caught in a cycle of dealing with the same problems over and over again, and when every person we talk to gives us a different answer.  (Just like flying).  If we can land people on the moon, why are we still stuck with these problems?  Isn’t there somebody out there somewhere who is paying attention, and shouldn’t “they” be doing something to fix “my” problem?  How do we fix the system?

As Christians, the question is always, what does God want me to learn in this situation?  What is Jesus Christ teaching me here?  As we know, this can, and often is, different for each person.  We each may have something unique God wants to teach us.  But, there also may be some similarities.

  1. There really are some things that we are powerless to fix.  We don’t like to admit that.  We may hate to admit that.  We’ve been raised in a western, Christendom, Enlightenment model of Newtonian physics where we’ve believed every cause has an effect, we should be able to figure it out, and we should be able to fix it.  I don’t think that’s Biblical.  I believe the scriptures tell us there are things we have no control over, and sometimes we suffer from things that happen to us that are not our fault.  That is why we Presbyterians believe in the sovereignty of God.  We believe some things can only be fixed by God and God’s miraculous intervention into a situation.  But, it’s hard for us to live and think this way.  This is not the way we’ve been raised.  This is not what our culture believes.  This is not what many of our churches believe.  But, it is true.  Maybe God wants us to learn what it feels like to be powerless, and to have to depend on the Holy Spirit to change our situations.
  2. There are some things we cannot fix by ourselves, but that we might be able to fix with a group of others.  We’ve been raised with a strong spirit of American “rugged individualism”.  Some of us don’t like to ask for help.  Some of us don’t like to ask for directions (I confess).  The Christian life is not an isolated event.  It is intended to be lived out in a missional community of believers, who are on a journey through life together.  Maybe God is wanting to break us away from our “sola pastora” model, and teach us how to address adaptive problems as part of a community of faith.  Maybe we need to call on the gifts and friends and networks of others, who can “get the system moving” when we can’t.
  3. Maybe God is using the frustration of “the system” to cultivate our missional imagination.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  If everything was happening smoothly, we what not be pushed to come up with better ideas.  Maybe our frustration is part of God’s way to get us to be more creative about our ministry.  Some congregations and some places in our denomination are really stuck.  There is no expert out there who can fix your problem for you.  We need to get our creative juices flowing again.
  4. We need to learn how change happens in complex systems like denominations.  While most of us know how to make technical changes, we are faced with some adaptive changes for which God hasn’t shown us the answers to yet.
  5. We know that patience is part of the fruit of the Spirit.  We live in an impatient culture, that wants things to change yesterday.  Good thing we are not the Israelites who had to spend 70 years in exile in Babylon.

I am not arguing in favor of system that breaks down, is dysfunctional, and is frustrating.  But, I do want to suggest that God is at work in these irritating situations to shape us in new ways, teach us new things, and stimulate us to develop a new way to be the church for the 21st century.

I don’t always like to fly, but there are times I can’t avoid it.  You may not always like how the denomination functions, but I don’t believe God wants us to avoid it.  Our frustrations may be exactly what we need to discover Christ’s way forward for us.