As I noted last week, I’m focused this Lent on a series of talks I heard recently by Diana Butler Bass, Episcopal public theologian and historian. In these talks, Diana addressed the clear data about changing church attendance levels. She also outlined five unhelpful (yes, unhelpful) strategies that churches have used in responding to the inevitability of change.

The first of these strategies is gating or putting up fences and hiding behind them. These are the churches that hunker down, as if they are on a battlefield, and declare that nothing will get them or their church to change from “the way things have always been.” The problem with this response is that information can’t flow through a closed gate. There’s no potential for conversation and the sharing of hope.

The second of the strategies is distillation. As the number of church members shrinks, the toxic parts get stronger, resulting in a lean, mean, and combative group of people that are not open to new ideas. As you can imagine, gating and distillation can feed on each other, creating a death-dealing vortex that no visitor would want to embrace.

The third strategy is nostalgia. People long for “the way things used to be,” recalling full sanctuaries and church-school classrooms on long-ago Sunday mornings. Leaders can wax nostalgic about prior versions of the liturgies, seeking to return to something that “worked” in the past. (In the Episcopal Church, this can take the form of resurrecting and reverencing prior versions of the Book of Common Prayer). As one wise elder at the workshop noted, “The church is excellent at solving yesterday’s problems.”

The fourth strategy is to embrace or create savior leadership. This involves finding someone who claims to have the right answers, someone who can solve the church’s problem and “save” them. As you can imagine, setting up any type of alternate savior to Jesus is a recipe for problems down the line.

Finally, we have exclusion and violence. This involves bullying and silencing people in the church who don’t concur with those in power or dare to speak out about the reality of and need for change. This can—and has—led many people to leave the church, worsening the trends and creating generations of former Christians who are living with religious harm—and yes, this is real.

So, why have I shared all these unhelpful responses? I felt called by the Spirit to do it, and I think it’s because we need to know what those who want the church to thrive are up against. Change is inevitable. We can’t stop the flow of history. Instead, we need to embrace it in order to find hope. In my next three posts, I will share three spiritual areas where understanding cultural change can lead us to finding hope as we meet people where they are and welcome them into our spiritual communities.

This week, I invite you to consider which of these strategies you have encountered, or employed yourself, in the past, whether in church settings or elsewhere. What happened, and what did you learn in the process?

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