Discontinuity and Hope [Secure eReader]
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eBook by Lyle E. Schaller
eBook Category: Spiritual/Religion
eBook Description: Giving examples of large-scale changes that have occurred during the past three decades, Schaller helps church leaders embrace new challenges and opportunities for ministry.
eBook Publisher: United Methodist Publishing House/Abingdon Press, Published: 2002
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2003
Back in the early years of the twentieth century, thousands of congregations all across the North maintained two large buildings on their property. One was a large building in which people gathered for worship, learning, inspiration, and fellowship. The other was a long, low, one-story structure, often open on the south. It sheltered the horses that brought people to church. Most of these horse sheds were razed in the 1915-22 era as the automobile replaced the horse. Thirty years later the paved parking lot began to appear on many church sites.
In the early 1960s the number of television sets in private households exceeded the number of households. Thirty-five years later the use of projected visual imagery to illustrate sermons began to become widespread in the churches.
Regional shopping malls began to appear in large numbers in the 1956-62 era. Thirty years later a growing number of congregational leaders recognized the need to redefine the role of their congregation as a regional church, rather than attempt to perpetuate the old role as a neighborhood parish.
The concept of multiple sites for department stores, financial institutions, universities, public libraries, theological schools, medical clinics, law firms, and hospitals surfaced during the 1950s but did not become popular until the 1960s. Thirty years later a small but growing number of Protestant congregations have accepted a role as a multisite church.
The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution took effect on August 26, 1920. Thirty-five years later several religious traditions began to ordain women.
Radio introduced the concept that the hour is divided into four segments of fifteen minutes each. By 1968 television had begun to persuade viewers that an hour should be divided into two thirty-minute segments. Thirty years later many churches still begin worship services, classes, or meetings on the quarter hour.
By 1975 one-half of all housing units in the United States enjoyed room or central air-conditioning. Thirty years later it will be rare to find a church building without any air-conditioning.
In 1946, for the first time in American history, the number of divorces in the United States exceeded 600,000 (compared to 236,000 ten years earlier and 264,000 in 1940). Thirty years later, divorced ministers were being called or appointed or elected as parish pastors and as denominational executives in significant numbers.
These eight examples introduce the three central themes of this book. The first is the conviction that while there was considerable continuity in American Christianity between 1800 and 1960, the past four decades of Christianity in America have been marked by an unprecedented degree of discontinuity. That is close to an objective fact.
The second theme is more subjective. While it is both intellectually and spiritually stimulating, as well as threatening, to talk about change and discontinuity with the past, it is far more productive to focus on the consequences of this change and discontinuity. The identification and description of the probable consequences clearly is a speculative undertaking. That explains why approximately one-half of the sentences in this book focus on the consequences of change. Three of the most significant and overlapping consequences discussed repeatedly in this volume are: (1) it is far more challenging, difficult, and satisfying to be an effective parish pastor today than it was in the 1950s; (2) the competition among the churches for future constituencies is without precedent in American Christianity; and (3) for many the most threatening consequence is the emergence of the very large regional church, while for others that is one of the most hopeful developments. Any one of those three statements can be written at the top of a piece of paper and the other two listed below it as consequences.
The third theme is the most subjective of the three. This is the conviction that most of the consequences of discontinuity are turning out to be signs of hope for the future of the Christian churches in America.
One common price tag on hope is that life becomes more complex than it was earlier. One reason for this increased complexity is that there is an increased number of points of discontinuity with the past. A second reason is that the degree of discontinuity is greater today than in earlier decades. A third is the disruptive impact of several overlapping changes. Another reason is that for many adults their church has become the number one stability zone in their life. Thus when change comes to the church, it can be especially threatening.
A fifth part of the explanation for that increased level of complexity is that the normal, natural, and predictable response to discontinuity is denial. That stage of denial often endures for at least one generation and usually is accompanied by confusion, gloom, conflict, attempts to perpetuate yesterday, bewilderment, confrontations, pessimism, and sometimes even chaos, but rarely by support for creativity.
For many adults the local high school is an outstanding symbol of discontinuity with "how it used to be."
The number of juniors and seniors in a suburban Chicago public school who come to classes in their own motor vehicle is more than ten times what it was when the present buildings were constructed. That is a point of great discontinuity with the past and an objective fact. The school has plenty of classrooms but a shortage of parking. That also is an objective fact. The school district also provides buses to transport students to school at no direct charge to the student. The design of the bus route requires seniors to ride on the same buses as ninth and tenth graders. Is that good or bad? That depends on your values, your goals, and your criteria for evaluation. One senior evaluated it as comparable to "having your mother walk you to school in the morning and come after school to walk you home."
One consequence is that hundreds of students pay $60 to $80 a month for their own parking space on private property near the school. Many students have at least six choices: (1) walk; (2) ride the bus; (3) drive and pay for parking; (4) arrive ninety minutes before classes to secure a free parking space on the street; (5) ride with a fellow student; or (6) have their parents transport them to and from school. Is that array of choices a cause for despair or a reason for rejoicing? That depends on your values, your goals, and your criteria for evaluation. The parents may come to a different conclusion than their teenage children.
A neighbor who owns a home with a wide driveway across the street from the high school is unhappy with the increased volume of traffic but concedes, "That $4,000 a year from renting six parking spaces in my driveway does help pay the taxes."
The reader of this book also has choices. One is to dispute the factual basis used to identify these points of discontinuity with the past. A second is to accept as accurate the identification of the sources of discontinuity -- and perhaps add a few that were omitted -- but redefine the probable consequences. A third choice is to view these consequences as sources of despair and gloom. A fourth choice is to perceive many of them as signs of hope and use these as foundations for designing ministry with new generations in the twenty-first century. A fifth is to buy this book but not read it. (A sixth, regrettably, is to borrow a copy of this book. Abingdon Press prefers readers purchase books.)
How will the clergy respond to this book? Nearly all will agree that being an effective parish pastor is far more difficult today than it was forty years ago. Some, and hopefully most, also will agree that this is one reason why the pastoral ministry is both more challenging and professionally more satisfying than ever before. At least a few may explain that this is why the crucial question in evaluating a ministerial pension system is whether it facilitates early retirement.
How will the clergy respond to this book? That will be influenced by their values, goals, and criteria for evaluation. Those who are driven by a powerful future-oriented view and who enjoy new opportunities for innovation, creativity, and outreach probably will be encouraged by the discussions on consequences. Those who are more comfortable with placing tradition on a par with Scripture as a source of authority may be more comfortable either (a) engaging in denial or (b) refuting most of the points of discontinuity and the probable consequences.
When confronted with an overwhelming degree of complexity, all of us normal people attempt to break it down into manageable pieces that we can comprehend on a one-at-a-time basis. That is one reason for a mother to give birth to five babies, one at a time, over ten or twelve years rather than to bring quintuplets home from the hospital. That explains why a congregation would be well advised not to swap pastors in the middle of a building program. That also explains the outline of this book. Don't overload the system!
The first chapter discusses a dozen points of discontinuity with the past that have emerged within the larger context of American Christianity. The first six are placed first because they represent big surprises to those of us who carry powerful firsthand memories from the 1950s.
The second chapter shifts the focus to the larger stage of American culture and identifies seven points of discontinuity that have had an immense impact on the churches. It is worth mentioning that five of these were largely the product of governmental initiatives.
The lengthy third chapter is so long because the generations born after 1940 have radically altered the context for doing ministry. Before these generations grew into adolescence the churches could say, "This is our agenda, take it or leave it." These folks brought their own agenda and proclaimed, "This is our agenda. Listen or we'll leave and go elsewhere." One symbol of that confrontation was the call for self-determination. A second was a new era of Christian music. One consequence has been an increase in the number of church buildings occupied by a shrinking number of mature adults. Another has been a flood of new nondenominational regional congregations. Eighteen items on the agendas brought by these younger generations are discussed in the third chapter.
The fourth chapter reviews seven other points of discontinuity that have been widely ignored and do not fit neatly in any of the other three categories. (At this point a few old friends may note that 12 plus 7 plus 18 plus 7 adds up to 44, but that is simply a coincidence!)
Finally, the last chapter represents an attempt to look at consequences from the perspective of those who will be affected rather than from the perspective of the causes. It may turn out that the most radical consequences will be felt by those organizations and processes designed to prepare the next generation of parish pastors and program staff for ministry in the very large regional churches. That last chapter concludes with a brief discussion of several signs of hope for the future.
For those literary genealogists who are curious about the ancestry of this volume, it is a grandchild of It's a Different World published in 1987. That book, which was written near the end of what now appears to be a long and clearly defined era, was an attempt to look back and explain the impact of the changes that were being felt by pastors, congregations, and denominational systems.
This book is being written from the perspective of what appears to be ten or twelve years into a completely new and radically different era in the history of American Christianity. The focus here is to look ahead to the probable consequences of radical and widespread discontinuity with the past. That earlier book was about the "what" of change. This is more about the "why" of change. The hope is that considerable grief, disappointment, and counterproductive behavior can be eliminated if specific policy statements and decisions are made from within a larger context. Ideally, someone in that policy-making group will keep raising the question, "What are the probable future consequences if we do that and if it works?" That is a far better question than "How can we perpetuate yesterday for at least a few more years?"
A few readers may ask what is the difference between this book and four earlier books I have written on planned change. That is an excellent question! The central difference can be seen most clearly when planned change is contrasted with radical discontinuity. Carefully designed and well-executed strategies for change usually produce anticipated results plus a modest number of unanticipated surprises. By contrast, radical discontinuity normally is followed by a large number of unanticipated and often disruptive surprises plus a more modest number of anticipated consequences.
One lesson from that paragraph is this. If you are designing a strategy for planned change that includes considerable continuity with the past--and that usually is the wisest approach to planned change--spend part of the time seeking to identify the probable consequences of those proposed changes. If, however, the design calls for a substantial degree of discontinuity with the past, the prudent leaders will invest more resources in that effort to anticipate the consequences. That investment usually can reduce the level of disruption created by implementation of the strategy.
One point of commonality in these two books, published a dozen years apart, is the conviction that it is much more difficult to be an effective parish pastor today than it was in the 1950s and earlier--but today it also is much more challenging and rewarding.
The second point of commonality is that in both books I have attempted to inject a note of hope wherever it is appropriate. The big difference is that I am more convinced today than I was a dozen years ago that discontinuity with the past often is a powerful source of hope for new generations, even when that discontinuity is a cause for alarm among the leaders in old institutions.
Finally, this book is dedicated to a number of folks who have made life's journey far more fun and interesting than it would have been without them. Many of them really do exist, several are still alive, and all have enriched my life.
Copyright © 1999 by Abingdon Press