“I’m afraid of losing our identity.” This was a response that came up in one of First Church’s transition workshops back in 2019. Transition coach Rev. Dr. Claire Bamberg first led us in a workshop on thecongregational life cycle, then a second on the grief process. We located ourselves on the decline side of the congregational life cycle bell curve, past the point of sustainability. We talked about what that meant for our future and what some of our options might be, including the option that a group from First Church had been working on for some years at this point: consolidation with South Church.
Identity sounds like an abstract, philosophical debate, but, in fact, it’s at the core of some of the most intense conflicts within congregations and in broader society. Take America’s culture wars, for example. The culture wars are a series of conflicts over different aspects of America’s identity, including white nationalism, gender hierarchy, class loyalties, regional identities, “Christian values,” economic systems, and systems for choosing its leaders. Will America stop being America if white people are no longer the dominant race? Will America stop being America if the gap between rich and poor becomes so great that economic mobility is no longer possible? Will America stop being America if Christianity is no longer the dominant religion? As you can see, identity is a big, emotionally fraught issue. Emotions are intense because conflicts over identity are conflicts over power: who has voice and who gets resources.
Conflict over identity defines what it means to be a church in transition, according to sociologist Penny Edgell Becker in her book, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life. Churches in transition are characterised by what Becker calls “between-frame conflict.” In between-frame conflict, two different visions of identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here” compete for power, that is, voice and resources.
This is contrasted to “within-frame” conflict, where everyone agrees on identity, that is, “who we are and how we do things here.” The conflict is simply disagreement over approach or interpretation. We have memories of the “good-old days” of “bipartisanship” in the U.S. for example, because for a brief period in the 20th century we were sending leaders to Washington who more or less shared the same “frame.” By contrast, the Civil War was an extreme example of “between-frame” conflict. Between-frame conflicts in churches rarely get violent, but they can be intense.
Between-frame conflict is unavoidable in the consolidation process. We have two distinct congregations with two distinct identities. Does this mean we’re doomed to fight until one identity dominates the other? No. The other option is to expand the frame, or “ABC”: “a bigger container.” We can build a space where diverse voices can be heard and celebrated, where resources can be shared. I’ve witnessed this happen, for example, when a church I served shifted from a white-dominant model to a mutli-racial, multi-cultural model. Some white people were so afraid that we were becoming a “Black church.” Their fears turned out to be unfounded. A new, beautiful identity emerged: neither “Black,” nor “white,” but a celebration of the best in all of us: a slice of heaven on earth.
Our transition coach Claire Bamberg has recommended we read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. Nixon and Estock are United Methodist ministers and consultants to churches of many different denominations.
The theoretical framework of the book is called “spiral dynamics,” “a particular theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowen, rooted in the work of Clare Graves” (p. ix). The gist of the theory, as I understand it from the brief sketch in the introduction to Weird Church, is that human history and culture has evolved through a number of stages beginning 250,000 years ago with the stone age, which in human terms was characterized by a “survival mentality.” 10,000 years ago humanity evolved to a tribal stage of “mutual reciprocity.” As we transition from ancient to modern times we see the development of an ego-centric stage, a “code of conduct” stage, a stage of “achievement and personal success.” The contemporary moment has given rise to a shift away from the individual toward a concern for the larger community characterized by various justice movements and concern about climate change. Evidence for further evolutionary stages include a stage characterized by a “value system that can respect all perspectives,” and a stage that “experiences the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit with mystical and intuitive sensibilities” (pp. x-xiii). What makes this evolution a spiral is that each succeeding stage includes the one before. The survival mentality persists even in the stage of “mystical wholeness.”
This framework–“color coded” for convenience–allows the authors to analyze how gaps between congregational cultures and changes in mainstream Western cultural assumptions have resulted in church decline. I had an “aha” moment many years ago when I realized that I had been taught that people don’t attend church because they’re “bad,” when, in fact, many–if not most–don’t attend church because they’re good and they just don’t see church as having any relevance whatsoever to their spiritual lives.
Much of what the authors describe resonates with my experience. The book was published in 2016. I find myself wondering what changes they might make to a 2021 edition. My guess is that they–along with pretty much every other thinker I’ve been reading/listening to over the past 13 months–would say that the pandemic has only greatly accelerated the changes they describe. I encourage everyone to get a copy of the book and read it.
A word of caution. Predicting the future is a tricky business. Organizations that endure go through periods of expansion and contraction. Darwin’s evolutionary insight about “the survival of the fittest” might be better phrased as “the survival of the adaptable.” While much of our work will inevitably be focused on what changes are needed for our congregations to survive, a more powerful set of questions might be, “How can we build our organization’s capacity for change? What behaviors, structures, values can we weave into the fabric of this new project that will keep the “change muscles” of the congregation strong for generations to come?”
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Pentecost
9 June 2019
Text: Acts 2:1-21
The Advent of this Noise
Scripture says, “And on the Advent of this noise the multitude gathered and were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” I chose this translation of the text because the phrase “Advent of this noise” made me smile. The word advent means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. I associate the word advent with the Christian season of Advent during which we prepare for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. Putting the word “advent,” which for me has a positive connotation with the word “noise,” which has a more negative connotation, is a humorous and provocative turn of phrase. The miracle of Pentecost is a celebration of noise, a blessing of cacophony with salvific power on the same level as the birth of Christ. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and a new spiritual movement is born. Jesus is born in a stable. The church is born in noise.
But what kind of noise is this? First there was “a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky” that “filled the house where they were sitting.” What does this noise make you think of? A storm? A hurricane? Some powerful natural force. In the Old Testament God often appears in storms and clouds. Psa. 29:9 says, “The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
On Mount Sinai God appears to a ragtag group of former slaves in clouds and thunder and fire. Out of that theophany God creates a new spiritual community called the people of Israel. God promises to be their God and they promise to do what God wants them to do. We are spiritual inheritors of those promises made in the midst of thunder and wind and deafening noise. And don’t forget the fire. The tongues of fire that rest on each of the disciples are reminders of the fire on Mount Sinai. In the new Christian community each of us is a mini Mount Sinai. Each of us is meant to be a place where others can encounter God. This is where the other noise comes in.
Scripture says, “And they were all filled with a Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them to utter.” It was at the sound of this noise–the noise of hundreds of people speaking dozens of different languages–that caused confusion among the Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. (Yes, Pentecost is another holiday we have inherited from Judaism.) But why were they confused? You might assume that it was difficult to understand what the disciples were saying because of the jumble of languages all happening at the same time. Some churches do dramatic readings of Acts 2 by having folks read the text in different languages at the same time. That experience is indeed one of cacophony. But Scripture doesn’t say that the confusion of the multitude is the result of cacophony. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The multitude is confused “because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” The multitude was confused because they actually understood what was going on. Why would that be confusing?
Here’s where the church so often gets Pentecost so wrong. The miracle of Pentecost is NOT that the world learned the language and adopted the culture of the church. It’s that the church learned the languages and adopted the cultures of the world. It’s not that the Holy Spirit suddenly changed non-church-goers and brought them into the church. The Holy Spirit changed church people and sent them out into the world.
This is where you have to understand the context of the situation. Scripture says that the multitude gathered in the house at Pentecost were Jews from all over the Roman Empire: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs,” to be precise. And when there is a public gathering in the context of empire you speak the language of empire. For the folks gathered at that first Pentecost it would have been Greek, because Greek empire preceded the Roman one, or Latin, because that was the language of Rome.
One of the expectations of empire is that you learn the language of empire and you conform to the language of empire. But that’s not how the gospel comes to people. Jesus is trying to teach us something so important here: the good news always comes to people in their mother tongue. In our churches we’ve got that completely backwards. We expect everyone else to learn our language. We expect them to learn our hymns and sing our songs and stand up when we say and bow their heads the way we do. We expect them to know who Cousin Becky is and that she has colon cancer and that they should sign up for TGIF even though they’re brand new and don’t know a soul. We expect them to entrust their children to our childcare even though it’s in the basement and they don’t know where that is. We expect them to appreciate choral music even though when they get in the car there’s hip hop on the radio. We expect them to come to this building to encounter God even though they live much of their lives online. But that’s the opposite of Christianity. That’s not the language of freedom. Those are the expectations of oppressors and empire builders. It’s not for others to learn our language and culture but for us to learn theirs.
We want to discern our future so what do we do? We survey ourselves because Christianity is all about what I want right? I suspect that people aren’t as interested in us as they might be because we say we are about justice but then we speak the language of empire. Empire is primarily concerned about itself. Jesus is primarily concerned about others. If we truly want a future, the next survey needs to be in person, and it needs to be of the town of Granby and what our neighbors want. When we do that, they might start to believe that we are Christians.
Everything communicates. Everything is a language: from our building to our bulletins to our staffing to our worship to our food to our programs. Everything tells the public what our mission is and who we value. And often there is a gap between what we think we are communicating and what we actually are communicating. For example we may think we are communicating inclusion, but are we? What could we let go of to make space for those who don’t feel like they have a place here? For me, personally, this is the most exhilarating part of being a Christian. I love the vast diversity of people and cultures and I want to connect with all of them. Remember the little Holy Spirit-Mount Sinai fires above people’s heads at Pentecost? Jesus doesn’t expect people to encounter God in church. He expects them to encounter God in you. Then, and only then, might they consider attending your church. There’s a theological word for this: incarnation. Jesus gave up everything to become God incarnate for us. We in turn are called to give up what’s most precious to us: the way we do our worship? The coziness with which we can assume people will recognize our faces and know our personal stories? The worship the town of Granby needs may sound like noise to you. But the advent of that noise might just be this town’s salvation, and ours. This is the true incarnation.
It is my experience that the more deeply and sincerely I follow Jesus, the more effectively and respectfully I’m able to connect with people across cultures, generations, languages, and worldviews. Humbly following Jesus is a pathway to connection to God’s great universe and connection is the pathway to healing and wholeness for me personally and for our planet. It could be for us as a church as well. It could be for you.