In The Creative Word, Walter Brueggemann says "Conventional notions of novelty are in fact the moving of pieces around without any thought of in-breaking, of a new emergence that goes beyond what is already administered." When we look around us, we can see that what has already been administered for the American Christian is, in most cases, broken beyond reconfiguration or repair. We are in desperate need of a new emergence.
Almost every Christian denomination is seeing membership losses in the millions, with an estimated 4,000 churches closing each year. In the twenty years between 1991 and 2011, the level of debt carried by M.Div graduates, due to the cost of theological education, tripled. Non-evangelical para church organizations are experiencing huge cut backs in staff and programming.
These are the realities I faced as I began my ordination process with a denomination that welcomed me by making it clear that I should look into chaplaincy; because they probably wouldn't have a church to offer me after a protracted and poorly administered discernment process. These are the realities I yielded to as I admitted defeat and mourned the loss of my vocation in parish ministry. These are the realities I could not wish away when I cast about for other religious work only to find para church organizations not hiring, academia cost-prohibitive, Christian retreat centers closing, and Christian intentional communities unwelcoming or unsustainable.
Some of you have left the churches you served because they became obsessed with a form and forgot their mission. Some of you are still in those churches trying to remind that body who it is and whose it is. Some of you could never even enter the work you imagined you would do for the church because of debt or bureaucracy or antiquated, oppressive ideas about who belongs in a pulpit.
I have watched some of you start faith-based projects with transformative potential and felt some fraction of the excitement you felt when you were called to that particular work. When those projects failed to thrive due to a lack of money or interest or support, I felt some piece of your grief.
Still others of you are just beginning a project or a ministry; and I imagine that your hope is tempered by a confusion about whether the bold work you are tasked with is even possible in the current climate.
In my discussions with folks in our community, I have not heard one person say "I long to return to the height of North American Christendom!" In fact, I have heard again and again that the decline we are experiencing will be good for our theology and, eventually, very good for Christians. But during the decline, it can be hard to dream. During a time when so much death is happening, it can be hard to remember that resurrection is central to who we are as a people.
Many of our elders are here for us. But they did not have to begin their life of service during an unprecedented decline of North American religious institutions, economic collapse, and environmental catastrophe. Our situation is specific to this hour. We need each other for this struggle.
The conversations and commiserations I have had over the last few years with y'all; at Jesus Radicals' gatherings, in the communities where I have lived or you have lived, online, and on the phone; have given me so much life. I have been encouraged and supported in ways I can't begin to name here. Y'all help me dream and plan for an in-breaking.
I crave more of these conversations with more folks at the table. It feels like we need to be more intentional about the accompaniment we must do for one another now. I want to make space for a big conversation about how to move forward as radical Christian organizers, ministers, scholars and believers. Could we plan a gathering? A gathering where we don't try to figure out how to save dying institutions or how to get "millennials back in the pews". Instead, we could have a time to grieve the loss of things passing away and dream new dreams together. We can tell one another what we need as Christians, what projects we are already in the midst of, and what we have energy to build.
We have so much work in front of us and we will have to do that work differently than it has been done in previous generations. We'll have to do more than move around the pieces. Let's talk about a place to gather, let's talk about a time, and let's do it with a sense of urgency appropriate to our predicament. Comment with ideas here, email me, find me on facebook (Hill H Brownsmith), send me a letter...just be in touch.
Thank you, friends.
I love y'all,