Faith Works 3-4-17
Trying to see clearly down a foggy road
Over the last two weeks, I've shared some thoughts about trends and social changes that caught me by surprise. Honestly, while I expected change in my life as a preacher and pastor, some things were not on my radar screen thirty or even ten years ago.
Debt, functional literacy, marriage as an institution, aging as a growing demographic with a significant social impact: all of these are changes that I thought I saw developing, but in terms of size and ripple effects, I now realize I might as well have not anticipated these shifts at all, given how significant their roles have been in my work in ministry.
A couple of things more . . . The coarsening of the culture is one of those things that everyone talks about, but no one is quite sure what to say. Swearing, sexualized content, semi-nudity and then some, plain old vulgarity of style and presentation . . . and that's just in politics. As a preacher, I have to ask myself over and over "do I make this illustration, quote that person or movie or TV show, allude to some artist?" Because an otherwise innocent reference can suddenly slide you into having signed off on something more that you had no intention of endorsing.
And I think I'd have to mention I didn't anticipate the sea-change in the very nature of work. It's been commented on so widely by others wiser than me I almost hate to try to take it on, but here goes. The idea that you could hire someone for a pittance and pay no benefits: it's always been around, but it's now embedded in a process called "work-for-hire." The big push is to have no employees, but contracts; to get hired, to help get someone hired, is a different process altogether than it was just a decade ago. For a minister, you might jump in and offer references, make phone calls, attempt personal appeals: today, preacher, forget it.
But not that long ago, church members and clergy were an integral part of the job seeking effort, and today, we're largely shut out. That's a huge change, and one I'm still shaking my head over.
Now that we're in the season of Lent, with the countdown to Easter taking us week by week, day by day towards Palm Sunday, it's a good time to reassess, to pare down, to get back to essentials. And for all the changes that I've shared my bemusement over, most of which are not good developments as far as I can see (which we've established isn't that far, so keep that in mind), I do find my way through this dark wood to a place of hope and promise.
What this exercise has said to me is that the focus of my ministry, our church's mission, and what I'd offer to any other person of good will, is best placed in three areas. Looking at what isn't working, and where trends are more powerful than any one sermon or pastoral call might turn aside, I see a small but definite opening, a triangular doorway if you will that's solid and reliable to use as an escape from the passing troubles of this old world.
I want to find ways to celebrate and affirm family as the first foundation of faith formation. Yes, family broadly defined, but if you read the book of Genesis, family has never been just a mom, a dad, and two kids with a dog. A household committed to the care of children with love and respect is a family I can support, and is where personal faith is going to grow. The second side of that triangle is the local congregation, the gathered church where the word is preached and the table is open to those who are hungry in mind, body, and spirit. And third is the community, but not defined by political boundaries. We could spend a whole month of columns just discussing that question alone: is it school districts, watersheds, cultural boundaries of habit and connection?
But there's an internal consistency and solidity to those three lasting institutions that holds fast even as some of the exterior view of them seems to change. Family, congregation, community. As a Christian pastor, I have some particular ways to understand those three, but I think anyone can look at these areas in their own life, and see how work to sustain them would have enduring value.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you're holding onto as everything seems to change around you at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.