During his first year, a dream about my grandson suggested to me that key to reweaving those aspects of church that are unraveling is working together across generations and experiences of church. We need both the fresh perspectives of those increasingly giving up on the church and the seasoned wisdoms of those who can articulate anew treasures of the faith going back millennia.
Here then, drawing on a seminary convocation presentation, is part 4 of the six-part series introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling” on a.) ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling and b.) how we might work at weaving and reweaving.
Grandparents Dreaming, Grandchildren Seeing
I had a dream just before leaving for coastal Maine, where our daughters, sons-in-law, and first grandchild Kadyn, soon to turn one, were to join our first-ever three-generation gathering. In the dream, Kadyn cradled in my right arm, I was walking across a towering ocean dune. The sky was bluer, sand sandier, and sea grander than the waking world provides. I recognized that dreamscape; I’d walked it before; I knew that there the Spirit and transformation hovered near.
As Kadyn and I walked, the dune turned into a mountain. Its snowy slope was almost one Kadyn and I could laughingly slide down. But I was responsible to care for him; I realized it was too steep to risk.
The dream haunted and blessed me. I remembered it as Kadyn and I walked actual beaches, dodged waves, explored breakwaters. I thought of it as Kadyn aimed an index finger at lights, fans, wind, people he wanted to learn more about—and as after learning their names he pointed at them when asked, “Kadyn, where’s the light? Fan? Wind? Grandma?” I thought of it as with fingers pulling in he asked to nap with fan on or signaled feeling the wind outdoors.
Watching Kadyn reminded me how wonderfully the young reach out to life. Yet I’m the graying elder charged to know that when he reaches down from boulders on the Camp Ellis jetty I can’t let him tumble into the cracks where the rats run or beyond the rocks into the Saco River where it joins the Atlantic swells.
Somewhere in such images may lurk insights for seminary and faith-based education communities—or any faith communities—as today so many people bypass the church.
Kadyn might too. He’s being raised within passion for grace and truth yet with church viewed as sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. To watch Kadyn is to see him grasping the miracle of something like the psalmist’s vision of the earth as the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof in ways my aging self struggles to glimpse anymore. But I can also imagine him experiencing, like I sometimes have, the church as taming all the wilder fullnesses.
So Kadyn may become one of the “Nones.” These are the growing millions who say, as Pew Research reports, “none of the above” if asked which church, denomination, tradition they identify with. Nones are often spiritually energized yet view organized religion as maintaining lifeless structures, majoring in doctrinal minors, elevating leaders who love power and polish more than authentic walking with the torn as wounded healers, caring more about who gets kept out than who finds new life.
Partly because so many experience religion as not offering food to nourish the soul, seminaries are struggling. As introduced in “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, not so long ago, loyal members, congregations, and denominations built each other up. Resources flowed to denominational schools and institutions. Students would get their degrees then be paid within and feed this virtuous cycle.
But amid None-ish trends, the cycle increasingly breaks down. Students aren’t sure if they believe enough in the church to train themselves to serve it. Or if they do leap, they’re not sure the church will pay enough to live on plus pay down school loans.
If seminaries could easily withstand such headwinds, the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education wouldn’t be reporting that cumulative enrollment at 205 North American seminaries peaked in 2004 and has been declining since. I myself don’t know precisely how those of us passionate about theological education or a flourishing church should address the challenges.
But Kadyn inspires me to offer two guesses.
The first is this: We should plunge into the yearnings and questions giving birth to the Nones.
We should take seriously that Nones include our children or even us. I can’t tell you how often as I roam the church its leaders confess that their own children, longing for more wonder than the church offers, are seeking it elsewhere. We need to listen to such leaders; to our children, siblings, friends; to our own hearts; to the EMS and EMU students asking the hard questions. We need seminaries and faith communities to be a place where it’s safe to say, with Ezekiel, that some of these bones are dead, and to dream of what it would look like for bodies and breath once more to throb with Kadyn-like wonder.
But then a second guess: Courageous exploration of how the church has died should be paired with hope that not all structures, not all traditions, not all sacred scriptures and holy rhythms and rules are ready for the bone heap.
I resonate with the yearnings of the Nones; I feel them. I also was privileged as a young pastor to help a congregation aim toward actually implementing a vision of church as a place to which we could bring our true selves, our dreams of wilder glories, our yearnings to love enemies and those cast out, our doubts and questions, our cravings for assurance that we didn’t have to be perfect to find God waiting at lane’s end to welcome us home. This in turn meant we dared plunge even into that riskiest of adventures, following Jesus.
In hindsight, we were groping toward emerging/emergent before Brian McLaren and others popularized the terms. And the Spirit deeply blessed us. Yet we also learned by trial and at times frighteningly great error that some faith-journey slopes are too dangerous. We needed not only fresh wonders of the Spirit but also the ancient wisdoms that had led the church to form its members in the first place within the boundaries and structures, the rhythms and rituals that had come to seem worn out.
Agree or disagree, Rachel Held Evans believes what millennial-generation Nones want is—
not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.
You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Evans is saying that yes, parts of the church are dead bones. But the answer isn’t to replace all the old stuff with flash and glitz. It’s to connect the old treasures with times like these. Thriving denominations, churches, seminaries, Christian universities, and faith-based communities won’t throw out the ancient wisdoms. They’ll become labs within which so boldly to blend time-tested, Jesus-shaped truths and teachings and practices with today’s longings and realities that the horizons of then and now fuse to yield miraculous life.
By framing my comments in the dream of a grandfather and a grandchild, I don’t mean simplistically to image students as grandchildren and faculty or staff as grandparents. Grandparents can be students, grandchildren can be teachers, and in each of us there are grandchild-like and grandparent-like selves.
But across our life stages and trainings and circumstances, we can bless each other. We can cherish the visions of those in awe as they see some things for the first time. We can treasure the dreams and wisdoms of those who having been around the block have mentoring to offer.
We can help each other discern when the slope is too steep or when after too many times around the block we’re preserving dead bones. We can together invite the Spirit to breathe new life into bodies with which to the walk across the holy landscapes, the high dunes and the sand and the snow and the sea, energies of youth and gray hairs of the elders joined.
Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in an August 2013 EMS convocation presentation.