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Last week Carol our friend Ryan and I hosted a gathering in the country near Dulles called Unconference. Unconferences are gatherings that take into account the talents, assets and gifts that each participant brings to the table. People arrived from all over the country to attend. Instead of bringing in “experts” to impart their knowledge upon us we spent time in one hour sessions led by participants on subjects pre-chosen by the group or individuals. In one session an artist made banners for our final worship service, in another a winemaker talked about how his religious community makes their own wine, in another we talked about liturgy writing, Carol talked about book publishing, a group participated in a church that exists online, Ryan talked about contemplative meditation and one session focused upon the things that are changing in the church.
This final one was a very fascinating discussion to me. As I sat with people from traditional denominational churches, as well as, people from community churches much like ours there was a consensus on the basic fact that whatever your church looks like we are going through a radical shift. With the massive generational movements going on within our culture there should also be a clear acknowledgement that churches that do not realize changes will probably be left behind in the future.
The discussion was more nuanced upon the topic of those things that the church should keep from its traditions and those things from its past that the church should abandon. Although we had some practical thoughts and ideas the consensus was that it might be too early to know. We are in the midst of change that is in constant flux. What we did agree upon was that in the midst of all this change we must acknowledge the pain that change causes.
One of the real deep thinkers of the group likened it to the transition that a person feels when they go from being single to being married. Your freedom changes dramatically in that act of relationship. Sometimes it can cause quite a disruption in oneself to find the balance of family, work and social. Before marriage there was not another person’s feelings and time in the mix. He related that he thought that this is what is happening in the church. It is changing into a new identity and it is something that it has never quite experienced before. Yet, to ignore the fact that it is disorienting and painful would be harmful to us. We would be better not to change at all than to ignore our own suffering.
When I am talking about suffering I am not talking about endlessly reliving your inner pains. It is time to start healing, no excuses. Too many people want to make a professional career out of being a victim. They are so sensitive to everything that everyone else says. They carefully analyze everyone’s conversation so that they can let you know how much they have been hurt. This is where there becomes a tyranny of a false democracy. You know the type. It is the one in which we pretend that we want everyone to be heard and understood. That is not democracy, that is nothing but superficial self-help. This denigrates church democracy and it also is too shallow to offer someone the sustenance for healing or wholeness. It allows others to rail, pout, bully or cajole instead of being honest and walking together with each other’s problems. Democracy is when people vote on a community’s future in contract with their leader/s and each other. Too often we make our church’s decision-making processes into melodramas. Places where we can work out our own personal inadequacies, hurts or need for ego stroking. Take those to your therapist, to me in private or to the body in prayer. That is the best way to deal with problems.
Church must be a generator of healing and wholeness. We cannot be in the business of merely having hurt expressed, we must be there with the expectation that there will be change. There must be change for growth.
The same is true for this church. When I came here almost 5 years ago there were some systemic changes that needed to happen with our community. Within my first 6 months the church had decided to scrap its original system of structure for a much more organic and flattened structure. Let me tell you that was and has been quite a painful process. There were some members who were engaging inappropriate behavior within our community. Let me tell you, trying to change that behavior has been painful. Trying new things and having them fail, trying new things and having them succeed, trying new things and getting complaints, trying new things with zero participation, seeing our old traditions going away. Let me tell you new things are painful. Watching the congregation’s attendance rise and fall, seeing beloved members decline or die, having a preschool succeed financially when your tithing income decreases. Let me tell you that is painful.
There is good news at the end of pain and suffering from the struggle of being the congregation called the Palisades Community Church. It always ends in hope. These struggles, these painful moments, these moments of agony are meant for an end in hope. Our endurance will be rewarded. We may not be the most prestigious church in the neighborhood, we may not grow any bigger than we are at this moment, we may not have the children’s choir performing every week, we may not have the sermon that you need to fill up your spiritual tank, but we have the Spirit of God in this place moving us forward.
We have seen so many great things that are new which have exceeded our expectations. We have had our first confirmation class of seven children in years, we have had a steady flow of new members, we have seen the facilities used in exciting ways, we have a beautiful eternity garden, we have had wonderful concerts, we have seen the children in this church blossom and we have given back to our community. Out of our suffering and endurance has come much hope.
In that same conversation about what should be left behind and what should be kept for the future church there was an acknowledgement that we do not know what change will bring the church. Yet, it was beautifully stated that it is like we are putting a puzzle together and we all hold a piece. As a church that believes in diversity in Christian expression we are right where we need to be as the church shifts into its next iteration. We believe that each of us brings the best of their faith, so that each of us can benefit and take it with us when we go from this place. Each of us has a piece of this puzzle. I don’t know where we are going, but I do know that we have enough here to get us there.
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