By my senior year of high school, I had played football for 11 years and had started at quarterback for nine of those years. During one of my games, I dropped back to pass the ball and saw an opening around the right end. We needed nine yards for a critical first down and I took off down the field. As I approached the first down marker, an opposing player lunged to tackle me with his helmet catching my knee. We made the first down. When I got up and started jogging back to the huddle, my knee gave out and I went down to the ground. I was raised in a family that when you got hurt you were taught to walk it off. I got up, took a step, and down I went again. My senior year season was over and I wound up in a leg cast for six weeks.
Today I want to talk with you about complicated blessings, particularly at this time in the church’s life. Blessings are gifts in the unexpected. The Beatitudes in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke speak of such blessings. Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God, blessed are those who hunger for you will be filled, blessed are those who weep for you will laugh (Luke 6:20-21). The Beatitudes are sometimes called reversals, because in God’s realm, what seems most devastating can be reversed into unexpected blessing.
Many are calling this time period for the church a “liminal season.” A liminal time is an in-between time. One chapter of the church’s history has come to a close and a new season has not yet begun. For instance, the protestant reformation can be seen as a liminal season. 500 years ago, there was an emerging dissatisfaction within the church. Some stopped going to church, others worked to reform the church and others started new denominations. What was clear was the church would not return to business as usual, but what wasn’t clear was what the church would become.
Susan Beaumont, a national leader in helping the church figure out what’s next, is working with GNJ leadership on our next strategic ministry plan. She says that during a liminal period, the church needs to shift from knowing to learning, from doing to becoming.
I also believe that we cannot compare ourselves to the past to shape our future. As we look back, we see the church in the United States at a time when it was larger than any time in its history. Eighty years ago, the Methodist Church in America was the fastest growing church in the world. From the 1940s to 1970s we had to do very little, except open the doors and people would come.
What Are We Learning
Today, the culture has a much different attitude and understanding of the church. Here are some things we are already learning. People are interested in a variety of experiences. When I was in high school there were only a couple brands of sneakers, and most of us in Philadelphia wore Converse that came in either black or white, high top or low top. Today there are numerous brands, styles and colors. People expect a variety of choices when they come to church. The culture is also telling us they want more transparency, less institutionalism and more understanding of how God and the Bible connect with their everyday life.
In GNJ we are learning from more than 500 people who shared with us in recent surveys and small group conversations that they like our focus on leadership development, prioritizing the mission and ministry of the congregations, and the new resources GNJ developed. A number of people also told us that they are afraid for their congregation’s future, the money is running out and fewer people are worshiping. They told us they like what GNJ is becoming but are afraid for their future.
In high school when my football season ended because of injury, it actually was just getting started, but in a different way. It was a complicated blessing. I continued to go to practices after my injury and the coach encouraged me to give players tips about how they could improve. On game days I limped up and down the side lines and the coach had me call the plays. That senior year of high school, I learned a lot about myself, about leadership, and about how to make a difference from the sidelines. It’s a complicated blessing because I wasn’t looking to get injured, but because of it, God developed me for what was next in my life.
Sometimes the church looks like its limping on the sidelines in a losing game, but maybe God is up to something. Maybe God wants us learning how to better connect with the culture, to let go of things that, well, quite frankly may not matter that much to new generations of believers and even to God, and to focus on the things that are about real faith, relevant mission and life changing messages.
The thing about complicated blessings is that they always start out by looking bad, and then in God’s own way, God reverses things on us and we wind up with a blessing.
Here are some of the blessings I am beginning to witness in GNJ:
- We are taking greater risks and not seeing failure as a bad thing but a learning experience
- Laity are stepping up to learn and lead
- We are starting more new faith communities than we did over the last 30 years
- We are diversifying worship experiences and changing things so they are not always the same from Sunday to Sunday
- We worry less when people leave because they do not like the changes
- We are doing more observation from the sidelines before we rush in to play the game
- We are talking more to people in the community about what they would like to see in church
- More GNJ churches are becoming multicultural
Churches stepping into these blessings are seeing a different future, not better but different. The operative word here is future; they see a future. I propose we add some new beatitudes to the Bible:
Blessed are those on the sidelines, they will experience more of the game with the people at the margins.
Blessed are those who take risks and fail, they have a future through trial and error rather than playing it safe.
Blessed are those who worry less about those who are leaving and focus more on who God wants to send our way, they will enjoy new company.
Blessed are the churches that are becoming more diverse, they are becoming the Kingdom of God.
Keep the faith!
Bishop John Schol
of Greater New Jersey