I just returned from an eight-day doctoral intensive at the coast. It’s hard to believe that anything in Cannon Beach could be called “intensive” but it was. Free from distractions the Portland Seminary faculty created a space where we could intensively and gracefully explore our gifts, our blind spots, and our unique leadership styles that make us who we are.
One of the gifts that emerged from this time was a reinforcement that God uniquely shaped me for visionary work. In testing, it was clear that on the continuum between being grounded and abstract I was far to the right in the abstract column. On a continuum being between being traditional and open to change I was also far to the right toward being open to change.
This combination, I was told, was typical for visionary leaders. On the other hand, I was reminded that my task is to learn how to how to deal with the reality that is right before me right now. People like me often have our heads two, three, five or ten years into the future!
It was no surprise to me that the same day that this was pointed out I also found myself engrossed in the most recent findings of the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life (your Session or visioning team might want to explore this). While I was trying to decide whether to have turkey or roast beef for lunch, I was also thinking about the latest trends and ten-year projections regarding religious affiliation.
I want to share this with you so that you are aware of what is happening in our communities with regard to religious affiliation. I want to share it with you so you understand a little better what life looks like inside my office and in my head. I want to share it with you because hidden somewhere between the lines of the report is the message that God must be doing an “old new thing.”
We should not dismiss the fact that in the last decade those who call themselves Christian in America has dropped from 77% to 65% (a 15.6% decline). And those who answer the religious identity question as “nothing in particular” has shot up from 17% to 26% (a 53% increase). If trends continue, in one generation Christianity in America will be just one among many minority religions and the non-affiliated WILL be the largest group!
I do not write this to alarm you or to scare you into taking some specific action. I write this simply to say, “this is the water that we swim in.” God is up to something and we have the data to prove it. Increasingly, we are a religious community in exile. And exile is just one of God’s many seasons (just read the book of Daniel to see how rich the season of exile can be).
In the coming months I will be working with the Presbytery Leadership Commission to lay out a comprehensive vision for the presbytery. One thing I want to be clear about, however, is this. Any vision that we come up with will not minimize the reality that Christianity, as we know it, is experiencing a monumental shift in form. Any vision that emerges from this process will not suffer from the illusion that if we just improve our music or the comfort of our pews or the size of our parking spaces that we will reverse what has now become a 50-year trend in religious dis-affiliation.
We cannot reverse history. We can only travel this season of increasing exile with grace, courage and faith. We have been through this before. And God has always been faithful.
Those who know me best know that I am a very hopeful person. But my hope does not rest in things like winning the lottery or pushing against the tides of history. My hope is not built on wishful thinking.
My hope lies in our most basic Christian narrative—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe in resurrection. I also believe that resurrection without death is like eating spiritual junk food—all sweetness and no substance.
It was confirmed for me again this past week that my head tends to be a few years down the road (I am often clearer about the future than I am about what I will eat tonight!). But we need people like me who seem to have their heads in the clouds. Because the trends are telling us something:
God is on the move. God is doing an old, new thing.
And I don’t want this presbytery to be late to the party!