Irritable Depressed Excited Anxious Exalted hopes Negative emotions Anger Unrealistic dreams Irrational mood swings What does this short list describe?  The answer; the list is taken from an article on emotional changes and feelings that an expectant mother experiences!  It is also a descriptive list of what the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) churches are going though in American society during the second decade of the 21st century.  (I am indebted to Dr. Kenda Dean for this insight.)  We are depressed and excited, anxious and hopeful; we are experiencing irrational mood swings. Over Easter we had a joyous visit with our son and daughter-in-law.  They are expecting their first child in early August.  Our conversation was filled with hope and laughter; with recounting of incidents and growth pains from their childhood, and some sharing of anxieties and fears.  Their child-to-be is eagerly sought and joyously wanted.  Expectant emotions are a healthy part of the process and yet they do constitute their own struggle and trial. The same is true for the church, especially The United Methodist Church. Over the past few years I have come to believe deeply that God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is giving birth to a new or renewed church in the North American mission field.  Phyllis Tickle builds her marvelous book, The Great Emergence, on an insight from Bishop Mark Dyer.  Bishop Dyer famously observed "that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale"  (Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, p. 16). Tickle goes on to note that by rummage sale she (and by inference Bishop Dyer) mean that the "empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity" are shattered so that "renewal and new growth can occur.  She writes of three very positive outcomes which emerge from the expectant emotions and birth pains of transformed Christian witness.
  1. A new, more vital form of Christianity does emerge.
  2. The organized expression of Christianity (translate as church form and culture) is reconstituted "into a pure and less ossified expression of its former self."
  3. The faith has spread into new "geographic and demographic areas." -(the above points are either a quote or close paraphrase taken from The Great Emergence, p. 17)
Often it feels like I am aligned with two churches/conferences simultaneously.  One is vibrant, growing and experimenting with new forms of ministry.  Its appointment needs from the current United Methodist institutional structure are dramatically different from those in the past.  No longer are general associates needed.  Associate pastors are often target specialists.  In very large "regional" churches, a key position is that of a "teaching/preaching" associate pastor.  This position did not even exist when I entered ministry 40 years ago.  In small to medium sized churches, the key component is pastoral leadership.  Congregations desperately want pastors who know how to lead them into a new future. Previous generations sought a pastor who first and foremost who excelled at pastoral care. The shift in emphasis, though subtle, is significant. No longer is pastoral care the key to the future.  And yet, simultaneously, there is a continued demand for the pastor to ensure continued stellar pastoral care.  For many years we have been moving to longer and longer appointments for pastors.  Lay leadership is deeply engaged in outreach and willing to look at new ways to reach new people with the gospel. At the same time, there are churches, pastors, and lay leaders who remain strongly resistant to making this shift.  We are steadily having more and more churches go from full-time to part-time pastors.  The "worship wars" of the ‘90s were one part of lay (and clergy!) resistance to the new church that God is calling into being.  The choice of slow death is being embraced over change.  In a good number of cases the issue is demographic.  Many smaller communities simply don't have the economic and population health to remain strong.  A younger generation is steadily moving to urban environments.  Choosing a new future means becoming a legacy congregation.  This can be deeply painful and even involve the grief as of a death. It is harder to be an effective pastor today than it used to be!  This is a simple yet under-appreciated truth.  Concomitant with this truth is the reality that it is also harder to be a wise lay leader.  The old forms are breaking down, and God is doing something new! We are living Isaiah 43:19 and this is a truly good and exciting thing!  A great insight we need to prayerfully hold on to is an understanding that it is the Lord calling a new church into being through the active presence of the Holy Spirit!