Faith Works 2-25-17
Nope, didn't see that coming…
Picking up again on the theme of "things I didn't see coming," changes that I thought I was anticipating but actually arrived in forms other than what I'd expected, starting this week with:
Books, reading, and smartphones. Truth is, it's not that everyone read so much when I was young, but you were expected to pretend back then, sort of. Everyone subscribed to a newspaper (I delivered papers for nearly five years, selling subscriptions, earning trips to football games and making money for college), and church magazines were the benchmark for what we used to call "churchmanship" in a less inclusive age.
But now between smartphones and tablets, reading has changed in such a comprehensive way I still can't quite track it – I see and hear many colleagues trying to hold to printed word and text on a page for their preaching, their teaching, in their church life, but I also see ways in which it's not working. But tech and reading has meant the consumption of text comes in bits and pieces, more than through a robust engagement with the "written" word. This piece, for instance, is already in violation of any number of online guidelines for length and style if you want to get readers, clicks and likes and shares. Ah well.
Then there's: Marriage. We have had quite the national debate in the last few years about same-sex marriage and civil unions and the like, but my biggest question continues to be "but what is happening to the basic institution of marriage and family with children?" First, just to get this out of the way and hope you forgive me: even older couples are not marrying. That's become a new normal, and everyone expects clergy and the rest of us to affirm that. Huh. Okay. Why not, because marriage is simply not "normal" any more. In more and more areas, children are born to mothers. That's all. Just mothers. Fatherhood is not a role as much as it's become a legal and legally contested category. There are some fathers who are husbands who are participants in the childbirth program, but not enough. Over fifty percent of kids in many youth serving programs are fatherless. All of which adds up to family becoming at best a complex category, and one we still struggle to respond to – in church and society at large -- with care and compassion. Meanwhile, what do we want to affirm that marriage is for, and how do we celebrate it and communicate its value?
And then there's aging. We knew people were getting older when I was younger. I'm not sure we knew how much . . . or that for some, not so much. Dementia and independent living has become a pastoral issue far beyond any scale I anticipated as a new pastor, coming up weekly if not daily. Expectations about mobility and autonomy in old age are bumping up against some hard, practical limits: we didn't see this so very clearly as we prepared for more and better nursing homes and retirement communities.
Which culminates in the question of going to church at all. Trends were moving, even in my youth, against church as an institution. But the outright hostility to church in general, and Christianity in particular: I don't think I'm the only one to have not seen that coming. I'm not claiming persecuted status, and I don't post/publish this to ask for any kind of sympathy, I'm really just trying to make a specific point. I've had my choice for faith challenged in public settings of all sorts, and I've heard in professional circles the role of clergy questioned as being comparable to a fortune-teller or ignorant bigot, simply because they are holders of a religious faith. If you can say you saw that coming thirty or forty years ago, I'd like to hear more about what helped you realize that, because I surely didn't.
I have some words of hope and encouraging signs to talk about next week, but these are some of the social and cultural trends I did not anticipate, and that I think faith communities in general and Christian churches in particular are struggling to respond to. Do you have others I haven't highlighted?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about the changes that caught you and your church off-guard at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.