Churches are caught in a turbulent sea of cultural, political and social change that is affecting most American institutions. However, that change doesn’t mean abandoning the past, but rather figuring out new ways to move into the future, says noted church scholar Diana Butler Bass.
Bass, who also is an author, speaker and preacher, offered insights into societal changes impacting religion during three presentations at the General Minister and President’s 2010 Pastors Conference in San Diego, Calif.
Nearly 300 Disciples pastors and church leaders gathered for the conference held at the Doubletree Mission Valley Hotel, Sept. 21-23. The event offered a mix of lectures, relaxation, fellowship, and opportunities for spiritual renewal. Other speakers included General Minister and President Sharon Watkins, Randall Spleth, pastor of Geist Christian Church in Indianapolis, Ind., and Juan Rodriguez, pastor of Iglesia del Pueblo-Hope Center in Hammond, Ind. Bill Thomas, minister of music at Church of the Valley in Van Nuys, Calif., was the worship and music leader.
At her opening session, Bass, who holds a Ph.D. in American religious studies from Duke University, cautioned that saving the church is not about fixing it so that it can continue to carry out the work that it has always performed, but rather transforming churches so that people can imagine new ways of meeting the needs of a changing society. "I want us to look at the turbulent seas in which the church is being released," said Bass, an Episcopalian. "It is not about putting the church in a museum but about putting it back in the world."
A web of interconnecting variables make up that sea of change, she emphasized, including the economy, technology, the environment, politics, and health. When the economy falters, for example, and unemployment rises, people reduce their giving to churches and have more need for social services. Huge shifts in the economy also affect the way people perceive religion. Recent polls show somewhere between 69 to 80 percent of Americans say they believe in God. This compares to about 90 percent of Americans who reported a belief in God 30 to 40 years ago.
Additionally, there are tensions between the older, more traditional styles of religion compared with the newer demands of the 21st century, at a time when about 25 percent of people respond that they are simply, "spiritual, but not religious."
"Can we hear the new demands, and if so, how do we act upon them?" asked Bass. She suggested that those new demands require church leaders to look at identity, belief and practice in new ways. Fifty-five percent of people now report that they are both religious and spiritual, Bass said.
The question of identity, "who am I" has changed slightly, Bass noted, to emphasize the preposition or the relation: "Who am I through God?" Who am I in God? Who am I beside God?"
Church leaders must stitch together identify, belief and practice in ways that are still not certain, but that are part of the web of how people are trying to live now and into the future. "No one person has the answer," said Bass, but we should be creating a new environment where everyone can be part of the interconnected, inter-related web."
In the opening session, General Minister and President Sharon Watkins preached from 1 Corinthians 11:23-12:13. She called on Disciples pastors to discern the body of Christ and connect that to what it means to meet the living Christ at the table of the Lord. Then to discern the body of Christ in each other – in the church – for the sake of the world that does not yet know, and finally to discern the body of Christ beyond their church walls, in the neighbor in whom we see Jesus.
"Like the Corinthians, we live at a hinge point in history, on a new landscape for mission," said Watkins. "Here in this 21st century world, like in Corinth, with an incredibly diverse context where people have never heard, we are challenged to discern the body – in the meal, among us, and out there, as we, random and diverse believers, become the body of Christ for the world."
Randall Spleth, pastor of a 3,000-member congregation that worships at two locations in Indianapolis, challenged pastors to break the habit of being constantly "active."
"Do not neglect the care of your soul, do not neglect the gifts that are within you," cautioned Spleth. Spiritual life is comprised of both the contemplative and the active life, he said. "If we neglect the one, the other will surely follow." Spleth gave examples of his own personal journey in moving away from constant activity to a place where he learned how to take time for spiritual disciplines such as daily Bible readings and prayer and how those practices have helped sustain him for ministry.
Juan Rodriguez closed out the Pastors’ Conference on Thursday morning with a challenge to Disciples to embrace our vision that speaks of true community, deep Christian spirituality and a passion for justice. "Deep Christian spirituality happens when you and I grow beyond the shallowness of our own world," Rodriguez said. "Can we hold in our hearts the multi-faceted mosaic that is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)," he asked? "Yes, because of the awesome power that is from God."
Carolyn Bibbs, pastor of Saving Station Christian Church, in Memphis, Tenn., said the conference gave her time to reflect on her ministry. "These three days have been good as a time of reflection," she said. "It’s given me an opportunity to stop long enough to listen and hear clearly what God is saying to the church as well as what God is saying to me."
Associate General Minister and Vice-President Todd Adams, who coordinated the meeting, said he looks forward to the evaluations and feedback from the 2010 conference as we consider a 2012 event.
By: Wanda Bryant Wills, [email protected]