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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Elder Evangelism

This is the third in a series of blog posts inspired by Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.
Atul Gawande
Gawande writes about his experience as a physician and surgeon, but his real concern is the humanizing of our institutions. The story of medicine in the last eighty years has been one of break-taking technological advancement. But Gawande wonders if the patients have been forgotten amidst all the technical razzle dazzle.
The next phase in the evolution of medicine, Gawande argues, will not be technological but personal. It will involve rediscovering the patient as a mortal human being. Medical technology is about curing disease and fixing what is broken. But what happens when someone can’t be cured or can’t be fixed? What happens when medicine reaches its own limits? How do we deal with the inescapable truth that we are creatures who eventually wear out and die? By failing to face that question, medicine can actually do harm and deny to many patients the possibility of living as fully as possible in the face of the limits of mortality.
Gawande has put his finger on one of those wondrous paradoxes – that recognition of limits can be the path to a richer and fuller experience of life.  
I think there are many parallels here to the situation of the contemporary church. Modern churches, like modern hospitals, are products of a consumer culture. Programming is the church’s technology. For many years, churches were extraordinarily success in attracting religious consumers by offering a full range of organized programs for everyone, from cradle to grave. In turn, the contributions of those consumers supported modern denominational like the United Church of Canada.
But what happens when churches can no longer deliver the programs? As more energy and resources go into propping up a program based structure, does the spiritual well-being of people get lost in the shuffle? Are we preventing ourselves from being what we are able to be by our frantic attempts to be what we wish we could be?
For as long as I can remember, the mantra of most congregations has been “Children are our future.” If we don’t have children and young families, who will take over when we are too old to keep the church going?
But this attitude assumes that people are going to follow a lifelong pathway of religious commitment; that the wee ones in Sunday School today will grow up to be the church leaders and supporters of tomorrow.
That reality has almost completely vanished. Something like 4% of Canadians under 30 are active in churches. My guess is that most of them are in more culturally relevant so-called “evangelical” churches, which means that the number of “leaders of tomorrow” in mainline churches is vanishingly small, statistically speaking.
But here’s where Gawande’s insights might contain the seeds of a new opportunity.
As we age, we become more aware of our mortality. That’s especially true today when sanitation, nutrition and medicine can keep us alive for a long, long time. For most of human history, most people didn’t survive to see their fifth birthday, and of those who did, few made it past 50. Preventable diseases like cholera, typhus or puerperal fever could carry off otherwise healthy people in a matter of hours.  “Here today and gone tomorrow” was not just a cliché, it was lived reality.  
Today, most of us don’t think about mortality until the limitations of aging make it unavoidable.  
Atul Gawande argues that recovering a sense of mortality is essential to human well being.
But churches – especially churches with a significant number of older persons – are one place where it’s OK to talk about mortality. If people were to know that there is a place that will help them face their mortality with wisdom and peace and joy; that would guide them in living life to the full even as the natural limitations of time and aging become more pronounced – I don’t think our churches would need to spend so much time and energy frantically searching for a mission or a purpose.
Which brings us to evangelism. Evangelism is “sharing the Good News.” What’s the good news for someone struggling with aging and mortality? That is a question our churches would do well to consider very seriously.
My former congregation was next door to a 450 resident senior’s complex. Whenever the question of the future arose, someone would always say, “Oh well, we’ll be OK. We’ve got all those seniors moving in next door who will come to our church.”
To which I would reply, “But in the next 10 years, it will start filling up with old people who have never been to church!
So what does it mean to introduce the Gospel to someone who is 65, 75, 85, and has no Christian memory? We assume that Christian formation is something that happens mainly when we’re young because that’s the paradigm of Christian experience we’ve grown up with.
But I predict that number of people whose senior years are going to marked by loneliness,
regret and the question “What has my life been about anyway?” is going to grow. And that may be a vast new mission field, white for the harvest, that we never suspected was there.
Let me repeat: This does not mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about ministry with children, youth and young families. It does not mean that we shouldn’t strive to build healthy intergenerational congregations. But I just think that, more than at any time in Christian history, the kind of community that traditional congregations are able to provide will be increasingly meaningful to people as they age.
With characteristic wisdom, Eugene Peterson has cautioned us about how “The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.” This insight may be the single greatest key to finding our way forward.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Matter of Perspective

One of the most interesting parts of Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal is his description of research conducted by psychologist Laura Carstensen into emotional experience (pages 115-120).
Carstensen conducted a major study in which she followed the same group of people over many years, asking them to record of their emotional reactions. She found that, as people aged, the places where they found pleasure, fulfillment and happiness changed.
Younger people tend to be future-oriented. They are driven by the desire to achieve long term goals, and they strive to realize the plan they have laid out for their lives.
As people get older, their focus shifts more to the present, to the here and now, to the simplicity of everyday pleasures and the people closest to them.
When I read that, it helped me understand what is happening in our aging churches. It explained why churches in decline seem quite indifferent to doing things that could change their reality -- bold changes in direction or radically new practices -- preferring instead to be content with the comfortable and the familiar. Like most of their members, they sense that the future is not unlimited.
If this was all Carstensen was able to demonstrate, it wouldn’t be very interesting. But, what is really fascinating is that the difference is not really about age at all. It is not age, but perspective that counts. It is not how old you are that determines how you view your life, but your personal sense of how much time you have.
Young people famously believe they have all the time in the world. So they tend to focus on the long-term, on striving towards goals that may take them decades to achieve. When we reach our 60s, 70s, 80s, or beyond, however, we know that most of our years are behind us and so our perspective changes. We are more likely to seek contentment in the present moment.
But it’s more complicated than that. Carstensen was able to introduce variables into her study that changed the perspective of her subjects, and when she did that, she found that differences of age tended to disappear. For example, when asked to say whom they would like to spend time with, younger people tended to say people they would like to get to know, while older people said those closest to them now. But when the question was put to young men with AIDS, they responded in the same way as older people, because they shared the perspective that time is short.
Conversely, when she asked older people to imagine a medical breakthrough that could guarantee they would live at least another twenty years, their responses were more like younger people.
So what’s this got to do with churches? Many of our congregations live out of a sense that their best years are behind them and their remaining time is short. Like aging individuals, they are more likely to focus on what they are now (or perhaps what they once were) rather than what they might become.
Remembering Atul Gawande’s key question -- “How can we help people to live as fully and abundantly as possible, given the limitations of their situation?” – we might focus on strategies to help congregations maximize their immediate potential. We would explore how aging churches can discover authentic and life-giving fulfillment, satisfaction and vitality, rather than simply feeling like failures because they are no longer what they once were.
But – does this mean just leaving our churches to be contented with the status quo – the equivalent of “keeping the patient comfortable” until the inevitable end comes? What about the challenge of the Gospel? What about the power of God to do a new thing? Does that promise not apply equally to the old – either individuals or congregations – as to the young?
The key, I think, is to be found in another characteristic of that foreshortened time perspective that comes with aging. That is a heightened concern with legacy. As we sense the finiteness of time we become more focused on what we will leave behind. What difference will it make that we have been here? What do we have that we can pass on?
This is one point at which we need to recognize the differences between individuals and institutions. Institutions cross generations. They are not limited by a biological life-span. Individuals may grow old and die, but institutions have the capacity to reinvent and regenerate themselves.
And so the critical conversation is not “How can we remain contented until we die?” but “How can we maximize our vitality as a community here and now – with a view to leaving a legacy for the future?
For some churches, that might mean reinventing themselves so that a new generation can find and experience faith. There are churches that have come back from the brink and found a new lease on life. Hillhurst United in Calgary is the one everybody is talking about. In ten years, it’s gone from almost closing to an average Sunday attendance of 400. My wife’s former congregation, Bethel Stone United outside Paris, Ontario, took a big leap of faith 25 years ago and hired her 1/3 time. Today, Rev. Adrianne Robertson is full-time and the church is looking at how to deal with a congregation that continues to grow. It can happen.
But the legacy conversation might mean that churches begin to talk about the long-term use of their financial assets before they are forced by dwindling numbers to disband.
It might mean saying, “We can no longer sustain ministry in this big old building, but we’re going to reach out to somebody who can” – even if they are not (heaven forbid) United Church!
Or it might mean saying, “How can we remain a viable Christian community and continue to serve Jesus, even though we can no longer afford our building or the other paraphernalia of the traditional congregation?”
Those are legacy questions – questions about what of value we have to leave to the future.
I think it starts with each congregation being honest about who they really are – not who they remember being or who they wish they were – and taking steps to be as faithful and vibrant a Christian community as they can – attending to what really matters here and now, and nurturing what is good, faithful and life-enhancing. One of the problems with declining congregations is that fear and anxiety cause them to dissipate their energies in needless conflicts or strategies that aren’t likely going to succeed. They need to locate the embers of their own vitality and fan those into flame.
And then to ask, “What can we do to ensure that the legacy of our faith is passed on so that it blesses those who are yet to come?”

It’s all a matter of perspective.