Without a secure foundation, the church is unstable, but without open windows to let in the refreshing winds of change, the church becomes a suffocating shell, Sayles says.
Ministry happens in the meantime and in the mean time.
The meantime is a season of sometimes bewildering change and troubling transitions.
It's an interval between a past we know well and a future that isn't yet clear and between a familiar way of doing things and an emerging way of doing them.
One indication of this interval is a leadership gap that exists in many churches: an older generation of experienced leaders is passing from the scene, and younger generations have not yet developed the skills for, or shouldered the responsibilities of, constructive congregational leadership.
We live and serve in the tension between what has been and what will be, and this meantime calls for discernment, perseverance and courage.
Meantime also refers to the climate in which ministry happens these days: It's a mean time.
The tone of public debate is coarsening, and verbal violence is increasing. It's common to reduce complex issues to bumper sticker or tweet-sized slogans aimed at the single goal of winning an argument; it's uncommon to engage in thoughtful listening and speaking with the purpose of mutual understanding.
Concern for the common good is eroding. Political polarization and partisan wrangling are more intense than they have been since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
These factors adversely affect ministry. Conversations about a church's challenges and opportunities too frequently reflect the stridency of public debate.
Add to the corrosive tone of public debate other factors that make this a mean time:
- Decades of worship wars have splintered some churches into factions organized around differences in musical taste, matters of style and differing opinions about what attracts "young people."
Many congregations are a coalition of churches-within-a-church. In some places, the coalition is strong and based on a sense of common mission; but, in others, it's fragile and reflects unresolved conflict. In churches where the coalition is fragile, ministry is difficult.
- Uncertainty over the value of "institutional religion" continues to grow.
Responding to people's hunger for spirituality and recognizing their caution about institutions is a Catch-22 for ministry leaders. How do we place legitimate focus on the structures and processes that make it possible for a church to serve people's genuine needs without over-focusing on institutional imperatives?
- Related to uncertainty over the value of institutions is confusion about the relationship between tradition and innovation.
There's a difference between healthy tradition and deadly traditionalism. In the familiar words of historian Jaraslov Pelikan, "Tradition is the living faith of those now dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of those yet alive."
Tradition is the foundation, not the whole structure. Without a secure foundation, the church is unstable, but without open windows to let in the refreshing winds of change, the church becomes a suffocating shell.
How do we strike the right balance between "the old, old story" and new ways of telling it?
Here are a few suggestions for vital and effective ministry in the meantime and in the mean time:
1. Model civility.
In public statements (remember that social media, whether one's own outlets or the church's, are all public) about hot-button issues, focus on issues far more than on personalities, and on matters of justice, peace and compassion that clearly flow from commitment to the rule and reign of God more than from the agenda of a political party.
Ground what you say in solid biblical and theological reasoning. Speak "the truth," as you see it, "in love," as Jesus has shown it.
2. Have conversations about difficult issues without the pressure of immediate decisions.
It's important to discuss hard things in settings that allow people to speak and listen with the simple but crucial goal of mutual understanding. If a decision impatiently waits in the wings, discussion quickly becomes debate and curiosity about another's views becomes a campaign for one's own.
3. Pursue structures and processes that are lean and nimble.
In many congregations, there's a widespread but largely unspoken awareness that "the institution" is more complex than it needs to be and that "tradition" had a louder voice than the Spirit.
Some congregations are trying to take a journey to a destination for which they don't have the right equipment, and the equipment they have is heavy.
Maybe it's time for a conversation (remember, not tied to an immediate decision) about how the church has organized its life together and to ask how effectively it serves God's dreams for the church and world.
4. Nurture yourself.
Tend to your physical and emotional health by practicing Sabbath in ways that fit your temperament and circumstances.
Spend unhurried time with family and friends. Have fun. Pray. Trust that God's Spirit is creatively at work and will bring life out of the chaos of the meantime and mean times.
Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC), an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on CHC's blog and is used with permission. His writings also appear on his website, From the Intersection.