By Mandy Smith – Pastor, St Lucia Uniting Church
We all love the idea of renewal—hope restored to hearts, congregations restored to health. So we work really hard to figure out how to get that renewal. Surely if we work hard enough, think of new ideas, do what has worked elsewhere, we’ll see things renewed?
But every way that I have seen renewal in my own life and ministry and in the lives and ministries of others has come from reflection on some hard realities. We don’t like sitting with painful things but I believe that it’s the place where renewal can begin.
Edwin Friedman says “there is no way out of a chronic condition unless one is willing to go through an acute, temporarily more painful, phase.”
The church in much of the West is in a chronic condition of identity crisis and decline. In chronic conditions we just want a quick fix to alleviate the pain. We don’t want more pain! But we’re desperately doggy-paddling at the top of a raging waterfall, exhausting all our energy to keep from the edge. It’s a draining way to live a whole life—doing all we can to avoid the crisis that might bring change. I’ve learned that often God invites us to release to the flow, into what we think will kill us, so that after a few minutes of tumbling in the current, we find ourselves in a more hopeful, peaceful place. It’s a death and resurrection kind of reality. How can we have the courage to confront the despair in ourselves in faith that God knows how to find us in despair?
Scripture gives us the example of lament to show us how to enter into such a place and what is possible from that place. Reflecting on our longing is not comfortable and wallowing in it isn’t helpful. But when we bring it to God, it becomes a place not of despair but of belonging. Throughout the ages God’s people have cried out to God for mercy. In our darkest places the Psalms teach us God can take all our questions. The Psalms that cry “Have you forgotten us!? Are you even listening!?” somehow end with “God has kept his promises.” Often the situation hasn’t even changed—God hasn’t quickly resolved the painful thing. But the very act of pounding on God’s chest, bringing our pain and longing to him, reminds us that we already have what we need. Because underneath all the despair of shrinking churches is a deeper fear that God has forsaken us. God longs for us to bring every fear to him, even the ones that ask “Where are you? Do you still care?”
Renewal comes from that place, not because suddenly all our problems are solved, but because we discover the God who has not gone anywhere and who can walk through every darkness with us. And when we lament together we discover we’re not alone after all. We have something new to share with the world, perhaps not easy answers or resolved pain, but a tested faith in the God who is always with us. We become less concerned with growing churches for the sake of growing churches and more interested in hungering for God, which along the way happens to grow churches.