This is the fourth in the series, “Who Will Name Reality?” This week Tim continues exploring one of the three barriers to naming our current reality: empathy.
How did we get here?
It is becoming a cliché, but the world was different when I was in seminary. That does not mean that empathy or our memories are not important. It does mean we need leaders with a different focus. Let me illustrate this way.
From the very beginning, in regard to its mission, the church has been challenged to understand itself and the world. In the very early days, it struggled with identity. Was the church to be identical or different from its Jewish roots? At the same time, the church was trying to relate and yet be different from the world in which it existed.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
As the church came into being, the early disciples (followers of Jesus), gathered as small communities under the authority of the Risen Christ as opposed to the Roman Empire. They were taught the values of the way of Christ through apostolic teaching and preaching. Loyalty and allegiance were to the Risen Christ and to the community of the faithful. The apostolic leaders focused on teaching and preaching. The disciples (the people of the faith community) were sent into a hostile world to live out the Good News of healing, love, and salvation. It seems odd, but the hostility of the environment was a uniting element.
When Constantine, Emperor of Rome, was converted to Christianity, the church changed. I’m sure it was considered a great victory. But when the Christian faith became the official faith of the Roman Empire, a reorientation occurred throughout the church. Again, the church struggled to relate to its environment and to accomplish its mission. The church no longer was in a hostile world.
In fact, the church and the empire became identical. The disciples (followers of Jesus) no longer gathered in small communities but began to meet in larger regional gatherings. Buildings were constructed so people could participate together in these large gatherings. The church began to be identified with its buildings as opposed to its values and character. The leaders of the church became chaplains of the empire. Loyalty and allegiance were to an institution. Disciples were sent out to be good citizens of the empire, patriotic, and tax-paying citizens.
The church thrived in this environment.
In fact, most of the individual churches that exist today were started in this environment. Many clergy and lay leaders were taught and trained to be chaplains – focusing only on the needs of the people in the church.
Today, the church is in the midst of another reorientation. Still, unconstrained empathy cannot be our default. There are several shifts underway. That is why I say the world was different when I was in seminary.
The focus of ministry is shifting from caring for the members as if they were members of a club to connecting with the neighborhood or the community where the church is located. Our essential task of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” is very much needed. Things that were of great value a generation ago are not as important today. Confusion and anxiety are present. In the midst of this reorientation, longstanding members can feel devalued and unimportant. As a leader, clarity around developing new care systems and communicating care processes is essential. Connecting with the community beyond the church walls is necessary.
Ministry is no longer part of the fabric of our social institutions. We find ourselves in a more hostile environment. The values of our communities may be shifting. Familiar prayers to some, are not known to many. What prayer, you ask? The Lord’s Prayer.
People within our churches feel anxious. Even though the population in our communities is growing, worship attendance and church membership continue to decline. What once was meaningful for a church community is no longer embraced by the larger community. The environment surrounding the church is changing. The church is also changing. We don’t know exactly what it is going to look like. But we do know this: our mission remains the same.
The One Thing
I must admit that the church no longer looks like the church in which I grew up or that gave shape to my faith. Yet, with all the shifts and changes, there is one thing that remains the same: our mission.
Yes, the world was different. So I am. Thanks be to God for the journey that we continue to live and lead. Thanks be to God that we continue to become who God created us to be.
Continue to focus on God’s leading direction. Keep our purpose, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, in front of you and those you lead. Both will help you navigate today’s changing landscape.