I’ve been wrestling with this next post for a few weeks now. Trying to get it just-so. It feels incomplete, and yet, I share it as a next attempt to dig deeper into the thoughts developed in my previous post, A Question of Legacy.
This past year, after reading “The Great Junk Transfer,” an article by journalist Erin Anderssen, I’ve been talking with my parents a lot about death, inheritance, legacy, and the junk we leave behind.
It was a normal phone call a few weeks after reading the article when the subject of my parents’ will came up. They were taking a look at it, making sure all the paperwork was in order. Half-jokingly, but spurred on by a recent funeral I had officiated at, I asked them about their favourite hymns and whether those too were written down. Long before it comes time, I wanted to know their wishes.
And then, after waffling a bit, I told them about the article. They asked to read it, and I shared it with them later that day [although it now seems to be stuck behind some sort of paywall].
The conversation that followed got off to an awkward start, but we eased into it. It was a conversation about death, to be sure, but also about resurrection hope. Talking about death with my parents that day was not something I wanted to do. And yet, as I walk ever further into the second half of life, death is becoming more a reality than it was in my 20s and 30s. In some ways, the church has given me a language and a way to walk through and talk about these things. In other ways, I’ve noticed that as the church, we’re just as bad at this conversation as the consumeristic death-denying culture around us.
The church ought to be a place where conversations about death and dying are honoured and facilitated. And yet somehow, even in spite of our professed belief in resurrection, we often do our very best to avoid looking headlong at one of life’s few certainties: its finitude.
That first conversation with my mom and dad has led to others. Over the weeks and months that have followed we have talked with more intention about what we value, what’s important, even how we want to be remembered. We shared memories and stories from years gone by. Sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, these conversations have brought me to reflect on the different ways in which each of us view such monumental topics as inheritance and legacy.
What one person passes on, the receiver has to decide what to do with.
As a preacher, I should know this. There is something that happens between the words that are spoken, the words that are heard, and the words that are lived. Which is all to say that even while we experience continuity between generations, we also experience discontinuity. What one generation values, and what another takes forward are not the exact same. What made sense in one time and place, may shift in value and meaning as we change, as the world changes, and as we seek ways to faithfully engage with people in a world that is ever becoming.
Questions of inheritance and legacy aren’t limited, of course, to conversations about the tools, the books, the furniture, and the record collection. It’s not just about Grandma’s dishes or the Meccano and the Train Set—toys that I played with, that had been my father’s, and his father’s before him, toys that will come to my kids in due course.
Over time, conversations about practical realities can open us up to more intimate conversations. Conversations about joys and sorrows, about hopes and dreams. Conversations about past wounds, perhaps even the opportunity to seek reconciliation and healing.
Death and a Resurrection People
As I think about the place in which we find ourselves as church, my eyes are opening to the conversation we need to have right now.
It isn’t much different from the conversation my parents and I started this last year. It too is difficult. It too can be fraught. There are practical considerations here, of course. But there are also questions of joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams, the wounds we have inflicted on one another, and the opportunity to seek reconciliation and healing. In the church, too, we are currently engaged in conversation about legacy and inheritance and values.
This conversation, far from being words about words, is about the necessary meeting amongst people who entered into the world at different times, who will leave the world at different times, and who have experienced and been formed by the world (and the church) in different ways.
Like any generational transfer, some of what has gone before will remain vital and central, some will find its way to the church rummage sale for others to enjoy, and some will go to the landfill, only to be unearthed by future archaeologists (or space aliens, for all we know) to wonder at.
What the church is experiencing right now is a weighing of priorities. What is essential to carry on in the way of Jesus in this time and place? It’s not that the next generation doesn’t value all the things of previous generations. It’s more than the fact that younger generations don’t want Grandma’s fine china. It may be beautiful and ornate, but it’s certainly not dishwasher safe, and there is nowhere to store it in this closet of an apartment.
It turns out some things may be beautiful, even meaningful to some, and yet make little sense for the reality of life in this present moment.
Like any generational transfer, this moment requires our existing church communities to contend with the realities of taking on and letting go. They are conversations that require vulnerability and trust. We need to trust in God who is present with us in this moment. But also, we need to trust that God is still at work in the world, that God is doing a new thing, even if we might not see it yet, even (perhaps especially) if it looks different from what has come before.
In this moment when one one way of being church is coming to an end and another is growing up, God is still present here. Even if it seems to us that the next generation of church is a blue-haired punk rocker rejecting the world we’ve created in our own image. Even if it seems there is a rawer, less polished energy to the whole thing, even if it’s a church that while we recognize its core elements, others seem incomprehensible. In the midst of this, we ought not double down on control, trying to avoid the death of one incarnation of the church in order to prevent its next, natural progression.
The situation we find ourselves in evokes these posthumously-published words from Rachel Held Evans in her book Wholehearted Faith:
“Death is something empires, not resurrection people, worry about.”
Look around the church, and many people are worrying about the death of its current power structure while others remain in steadfast denial despite the evidence on display. But why are we more concerned with taking heroic measures to keep one institutional model on life support than we are with bequeathing a living and active faith in Jesus for generations to come?
A Death Grip on Control
I would posit that there are at least three human factors shaping our current predicament:
- A generational death grip on control
- A failure to trust the leadership of those who entered the church in a time of change
- The natural lifecycle of an organisation in a rapidly changing culture
A fourth possibility exists on an entirely different order:
- What if this situation is divine judgment for our lack of faithfulness?
The church and its current crop of leaders were deeply formed in a world where the church still meant something—even played a central role—in social and civic life. This was a world where people met their partners at youth group or dances or church camp. Business relationships took place here. Church wasn’t just one social circle, it was the circle.
Over years and decades, this has changed. And yet we still talk about the fabled (insert very large number here) person Sunday School. The glory days when the pews were full, the energy great, and the church really meant something.
Over years and decades, those numbers have gone steadily down. There are few who remain from this generation. And yet, the way we govern and organize ourselves, the way we conceive of the institution as being the one constant in a sea of change, the way in which we allocate resources to hold up this illusion, to prop up empty decaying buildings in order to “maintain an Anglican presence” strangely at odds with the cruciform trajectory of Christ. It is not enough to have a building or a clergy person who says mass from time to time.
To be the church is to be a gathered people, being transformed by Jesus, sent into the world to embody God’s dream for the world. Anything less is “church” in name alone. Anything less is counterfeit.
What is needed in this moment are not more treatises on reclaiming the past from those who attended the four-hundred person Sunday school, let alone a clampdown on liturgy so that we can get it right.
It seems to me that—in addition to those who are tending to the failing structures and the crumbling infrastructure of Christendom—what is needed is a new form of leadership formed in the aftermath of Christendom’s implosion. What we need are those who have arrived in the church (by call and by choice) without memory of the church’s centrality and access to power, those who embrace the kenotic self-emptying trajectory of Christ as the primary call of the church. Power be damned.
A friend recently observed that those who entered the church after Christendom entered as a result of a change (or conversion) in their life. Their conversion led them into a changing church that was neither steady nor stable. Their experience wasn’t inherited, but the result of a transformative encounter with the living God who met them, and who led them into this place.
Twenty years ago, a mentor of mine told me of his plan to retire early from pastoral ministry. Looking at the church he had inherited, one of the thing he noticed was how long the previous generation had held on to power and control. “My goal,” he said, “is to start right now creating space, mentoring people along the way, and then, to get out of the way so that they can do what I can’t even imagine.” That’s always struck me as a bold and vulnerable move.
As we think about the institutional church, perhaps one of the bravest, most important next steps is to acknowledge when we can’t see the way forward, and to make space for those who prophesy, those who see visions, and those who dream dreams.