We Had To Have To

Thoughts on Leadership for the Critical-Thinking Christian

“We had to have to.” The words above sum up the stance toward change lived out by thousands of congregations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Faith communities that had long resisted technological innovations — or any other kind — suddenly had only one real option: want to use new technologies to get your community together? Or would you rather risk lives and break the law by getting together? Or not get together at all? Option #1, please!

Churches now find themselves in the midst of a post-Covid reopening reckoning. This workbook is designed as a resource for those who consider this time-like-no-other to be an opportunity to face realities. It is for those who feel emboldened by new knowledge and confidence that we are capable of much more dramatic change than we once thought. Fear of change might have kept us from exploring innovations before. When faced with fear of oblivion, change starts looking pretty good.

Ours is not the first generation of faith communities that have had to change in order to continue to live out an unchanged mission. If the mission of the church in the world is to enact God’s vision and extend life-giving love into the world, it is only natural that the mode of operation would need to evolve with culture and circumstance. That which made the Christian faith resilient from the start was its adaptive capacity.

The early church was a Jesus movement, where Jesus’ followers lived out their faith differently depending on their settings. The letters of Paul in the New Testament show us that members of Christian churches worked hard to live out their missions and stick together, and they did so differently in Rome versus Corinth versus Ephesus.

In the fourth century, we see what happens when Christianity becomes a state religion when a brutal emperor — Constantine — converts. From prosecuted to prosecutor, the church preserved itself inside militarism. It was often awful. It also did incredible things for communities and lives during the same years. The church migrated from its military bunker to a new shelter inside the walls of institutions. Again, the church found preservation that resulted in both good and ill; the point is, the church survives.

We find ourselves at a new juncture. The walls of institutions are no longer going to protect faith communities. Our wider world has woken up in the early 21st century to the notion that no institution is too big to fail. Even our natural world is fragile, we have begun to understand. From oceans and mountains, to bees and microbes, that which we thought impervious to human activity turns out to be vulnerable.

We can no longer vest institutions with ultimate responsibility for ensuring we, or the communities that matter to us, are safe from forces that would dissolve or doom them. And that is good.

First, the fantasy of the invulnerable institution enabled passivity anathema to a passionate lived faith. Many scholars of theology and ethics have argued that Christianity simply works better as a movement than as an institution. In the words of Sue Phillips of the Sacred Design Lab, the institutional church of today is a “broken delivery system” for something the world needs badly.

Second, “faith” does not mean that we live expecting someone else — the institutional church, the pastor, or even God — will handle everything we do not want to face. Faith means that we believe God can work through us to change the world.

What follows is a ten-unit guide for groups within congregations to consider what it would take for them to become a more effective delivery system for the Gospel in their communities today. We know that spiritual hunger is out there. If not, why would Soul Cycle and Peleton online classes be all the rage in fitness? People want to do something good for their inner lives, they want to be together, and they want to be inspired.

Following Jesus together: that is what the church delivers. Breaking that phrase into three parts, we find richness beyond what meets the eye. Following suggests a way of life to which we tend through worship but which touches every aspect of our lives between worship services.

Jesus provides the guide for that way of life. His birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection each provide a heaven-sent window into life’s meaning. Jesus’ significance cannot be boiled down to a single lesson. Cosmic battle between good and evil? Teachings of gentleness and preferential compassion for the poor? Models of community and friendship? Yes, yes, yes. We could spend our whole lives following Jesus — and many do! — and discover something new every day.

Together suggests that Jesus might be our personal Lord and savior, but the life of faith is not purely solitary. Jesus came among us in the flesh and had relationships. Those he loved, and who loved him, challenged and nurtured him. Following his example, we humble ourselves by joining communities where we are constantly reminded that faith isn’t all about us.

What do these times demand of us if we are to follow Jesus together? Where are we and others seeking meaning and purpose? Why are our churches important to our communities? How can we be of greatest and best service to the world? When can we start answering these questions? First, we need to ask them. Church, are you ready to ask and deal with what God is doing now? If yes, let us do so together.

Early- and mid-20th Century theologian Paul Tillich wrote that humans’ ultimate fear is the fear of death. All fears find their root in that ultimate fear, and that is good news. Why? Because by that logic, the resurrection should release us from not just fear of death but from all fears.

Religious leaders can help normalize a congregation’s fear while also reminding Working Groups to temper their fears with constant reminders that life wins. What fears do we bring with us into this process of discernment now? What would we consider to be the “worst thing that could happen” to our churches? Good news: it’s probably already happened.

We’re not living on borrowed time; we’re walking on sacred, resurrected ground.

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Sarah B. Drummond

Sarah B. Drummond

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Sarah Birmingham Drummond is Founding Dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.