“Monks are accustomed to taking the long view,” writes Kathleen Norris as she describes a massive storm slowly lumbering towards a monastery on the open prairie in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Whether in storms or sunshine, the spiritual life means making our way through a very different – and far more patient – time horizon.
Churches have for so many years been assuming the long game, though perhaps incorrectly. Our faith speaks of something infinite and so we expect that our church – whether the big-C church or our own respective congregation or denomination – will plug along for as long as time itself.
The revelation of the past few years, or decades, or generations, is that we simply can’t assume that anymore…but that might actually be a good thing.
The big-C church isn’t likely going anywhere, and we probably can thank our great and frustrating diversity for that. But may of us are waking up to the reality that the stats and numbers of many congregations and denominations very clearly do not trend towards forever. In fact, those stats hint that the last Episcopalian, for example, may well be turning the lights in a finely-appointed-yet-dusty sanctuary sometime in the next century.
Here’s the bad news: we’re the first generation of late to know that our church is declining, and relatively quickly.
Ah, but here’s the good news: We’re the first generation to know itself as declining, and relatively quickly.
We can respond and adapt, and do so with a bit more wisdom and insight because for us, committing to the long view will be a choice rather than an assumption.
One of my favorite clothing companies builds their identity around creating good stuff that lasts, and therefore requires less gratuitous consumption. They embrace the long game: We plan to be here in the next 100 years, so we think about long-term results.
What do we need to do to still be here in 100 years – if that’s indeed what we want? Questions of “what can change and what can’t” are important, but I’d rather focus on what will serve our mission over the long term, and what fleeting things today might distract us…or even sabotage the long view.
If these sacred places are valuable to us, we might think a bit more – and a bit more patiently – about what the long game looks like.