Friday, March 13, 2009

Navigating the White Waters of Change

(Leona and her husband are vacationing in Hawaii. We are posting an article Leona recently published in her role as Co-Director for 2nd 1/2 for Him, Baptist General Conference)

“ You’re not going down the CHUTES like that are you?”

Those were the last words we heard before our inflatable plunged over what appeared to be a harmless, flat, smooth rock formation. Puddles of lazy water lapping against a table of stone suddenly turned into raging waters determined to plunge straight down. The people on the shore waving their arms and shouting words of warning were soon lost in a haze of white bubbles and cold murk.

It all started so peacefully. We were floating down the river on a lazy afternoon. Enjoying the sites, the fellowship, the common purpose of just getting down the river so we could hike back up. But like so much of life, something happened we weren’t prepared for: a change in the terrain.

What resulted was near disaster as we left the comforts of the raft, entered the cold glacier-fed stream, held our breath and plummeted. Our angels were on red alert that day, and we actually survived.

Some of what we learned from those white waters we will never forget. Things like: Don’t be surprised when change happens. Prepare for it, expect it, try to understand it, and then hang on!

We often refer to our “white water” (white knuckle!) rafting experience when we consider life in today’s church. Our generation has been sailing along for years, confidently rowing through familiar waters. We’ve established strong churches with solid infrastructures. Programs are as predictable as the tide. We know what to wear, what to teach, and most importantly, what to sing and how to sing it. We’ve got peace like a river.

And then comes along another generation (or two or three!). Things start to feel different. Pastors start wearing jeans in the pulpit, the worship band turns up the volume to unbelievable levels (we already gave up the piano and organ, wasn’t that enough??) and they are talking about taking “Baptist” out of our name. Unfamiliar words like “emergent,” “missional,” “local impact,” “multi-site” ricochet around board rooms and business meetings. The waters are stirring and we feel not only uncertain, but disoriented. Not only disoriented, but disgusted. “They” are changing everything. We’re going over the edge and entering white water!

Gordon MacDonald artistically paints a picture of the turmoil many feel as our churches “try to enter the 21st century” in his recent fiction (really, a fiction?) entitled Who Stole My Church? The book cover says it all, “This is a fictional story that reflects the all-too-real situation of many church communities today, where loyal and long-standing members can feel pushed aside by the new demands of evangelism in the twenty-first century.”

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

All of us who gathered in the Commons that evening shared a common history: We’d been raised by parents who had persevered through the Great Depression and fought (or supported the soldiers) in World War II. We could remember a time when most homes had only one telephone, if any, and when an extension phone (once a common term) was considered a luxury. We could recall summertime polio epidemics, radio dramas, and President Truman. We had grown up afraid of communists, curious about UFOs, and envious of anyone owning a 1949 Ford with twin Hollywood mufflers. Another thing we all had in common was that we were all church people, Christian in our life commitment. All of us had years and years of history invested in organized religious life. And more than a few in the group--I was an exception--had been a part of this particular church since infancy....We were descendants of a passing Christian culture. We could swap stories of memorable Billy Graham campaigns. We often reminisced about our Saturday night dates at Youth for Christ rallies. And we were quite familiar with traditional church functions: midweek prayer services, VBS, Watch Night services on New Year’s eve, and sunrise services on Easter morning to which we were dragged by parents whose lives were defined by the church calendar....We’d all been to summer camp, and we’d sung and even acted in Christmas cantatas. Our histories also included missionary festivals, prophecy conferences, and Bible exposition weekends. We were taught from our earliest days that the standard for biblical giving was the tithe: 10 percent of our earnings.... When the church opens its doors, we have always shown up.... That is, until lately. Now something may be changing in our generational ranks. Faithful people who always used to be as dependable as the ocean tides on the Maine coast are beginning to signal a bit of annoyance with their churches. And their gifts and their faithfulness in attendance are beginning to fray at the edges. (p. xiv-xvi)
Many church leaders are facing some of the challenges identified in MacDonald’s book. Navigating the white waters of change can be demanding, exciting, and sometimes deadly. Psalm 71:17-18 reminds us of how critical it is to find a way through the white waters. “Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, until I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.”

(Photo by Quite Lucid, shared via Flickr)

No comments: