Also alluding to a Supertramp album title, Tom Allen recounts something he heard on the radio, that “a real crisis only occurs when ‘people fail to recognise the need to change in the light of the world around them’.”
I suppose this means that crisis foreseen is crisis averted, provided the foresight is accepted and acted upon. Too often, it is not, and crisis appears inevitable. It does, however, create the positive environment of openness to change. In Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, Becky Garrison interviews a number of notable voices, including Diana Butler-Bass. (p.5).
What can turn a dying mainline church into a vital congregation?
Diana Butler-Bass: I think it has something to do with crisis. Ninety percent of the congregations I studied were—ten or twenty years ago—on the verge of closing. They had declined so badly that there were few people left. Some of them had financial crises or crises of leadership. The vestry notes from Trinity in Santa Barbara stated that the were so divided that there had been fistfights in their board meetings! Elsewhere—sadly—a lot of clergy has misconduct cases, and (in) one of them, even lightening struck the building and burned it to the ground. So there were all kinds of crises. But I think what that means is that that’s kind of the same situation in our own spiritual life. There are no atheists in foxholes and for the mainline—basically—the entire tradition has been living in a foxhole for thirty years. Some of them have realized, “Hey look, we’ve got to get serious here or we’re going to die in this hole.” Once that sense of the urgency regarding the need to change really hits in a congregation’s heart, then I think that’s the pathway they’ve opened for the Holy Spirit to be able to move in and really make a change.
Crisis is painful, and is tinged with the realization that you should have seen it coming but either didn’t see it coming or ignored what you did see. This is a continual frustration for the prophetic voice who calls out what he sees, only to have his voice fall on deaf ears. Sometimes the warning is heard, but with selective hearing that re-forms it so that it contains only promise and not warning. This is born not so much of evil intent as mere human tendency.
In the early 90’s we were part of a church planting team. One of the early prophetic words we had was about being “built upon the ruins,” from Jeremiah 30.
18 “This is what the LORD says:
” ‘I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents
and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city will be rebuilt on her ruins,
and the palace will stand in its proper place.
19 From them will come songs of thanksgiving
and the sound of rejoicing.
I will add to their numbers,
and they will not be decreased;
I will bring them honor,
and they will not be disdained.
20 Their children will be as in days of old,
and their community will be established before me;
I will punish all who oppress them.
21 Their leader will be one of their own;
their ruler will arise from among them.
I will bring him near and he will come close to me,
for who is he who will devote himself
to be close to me?’
declares the LORD.
22 ” ‘So you will be my people,
and I will be your God.’ “
It was popularly thought that this meant we would step into a space where the church had failed or died out in the past, that we would find our inheritance in the ground of the church’s past failure. These verses fueled many a prayer meeting, and were universally seen as having great significance for our little endeavour. And rightly so.
Unfortunately, the text doesn’t talk about being built on someone else’s ruins. I remember reading this aloud to the group of leaders ten years on (obviously before we left the old CLB, and pointing out the fact that the church was to be built on her own ruins. We were in the midst of a significant crisis at the time. Not only that, but the preceding verses speak of crisis and judgement. Excerpting:
8 ” ‘In that day,’ declares the LORD Almighty,
‘I will break the yoke off their necks
and will tear off their bonds;
no longer will foreigners enslave them.
11 I am with you and will save you,’
declares the LORD.
‘Though I completely destroy all the nations
among which I scatter you,
I will not completely destroy you.
I will discipline you but only with justice;
I will not let you go entirely unpunished.’
12 “This is what the LORD says:
” ‘Your wound is incurable,
your injury beyond healing.
13 There is no one to plead your cause,
no remedy for your sore,
no healing for you.
14 All your allies have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you.
I have struck you as an enemy would
and punished you as would the cruel,
because your guilt is so great
and your sins so many.
15 Why do you cry out over your wound,
your pain that has no cure?
Because of your great guilt and many sins
I have done these things to you.
16 ” ‘But all who devour you will be devoured;
all your enemies will go into exile.
Those who plunder you will be plundered;
all who make spoil of you I will despoil.
17 But I will restore you to health
and heal your wounds,’
declares the LORD,
‘because you are called an outcast,
Zion for whom no one cares.’
The promise is of the good things to come following the bad. Why is it we only want the promise without walking the tough road to get there? The crisis lies ahead, forged by events all around us, but we ignore its approach. It is the way of God that it will lead us to new and greener pastures, but we deny it, closing our eyes. Only crisis drives us to consider the depth of change that is necessary to press on ahead. Perhaps we can see the crisis looming, but we presume that God will “rescue” us from the it and hand us the benefits on the other side. Are we naive? Or are we blind?