This book project is feeling more relevant than ever today. Here are the first few pages of chapter one.
We don’t need the Pew Survey or the Barna Group latest report to tell us that we have a problem. Christian leaders are well aware of the exodus from church. Studies like that of Alan Jamieson in New Zealand and Dave Kinnaman in the USA have unveiled some of the implications of the transition we are in. While some of the mainline churches are in a kind of renewal , evangelical churches in Canada and the USA are shrinking.
While the church has always been in crisis, uncertainty and transition mark our times. We live amidst the collision of cultures and of worldviews, and the collapse of the Enlightenment synthesis. Rapid and unpredictable changes generate anxiety within us and stress within the organizations we lead. Individuals, institutions and whole communities are in transition. Reggie McNeal uses the metaphor of a violent river to describe the tension. He writes that,
Culture roils and churns in the collision of the old with the new. At the dawn of the third Christian millennium, continuity battles with discontinuity; the emergent dances with what is passing away. Leaders of spiritual enterprises, like many of the adherents of the faith, have oars in both currents. The challenge involves getting as many through the rapids as possible, knowing some will never make it.
Transition is a place of liminality, of instability and contradictions. The old Latin word “limina” means threshold. Liminality is a space in-between where nothing seems clear. One April Sunday my family and I visited a young church community in our town. On the way to the meeting we noticed two very different restaurant signs. The first invited, “Come in from the cold; warm food and hot drinks.” The second proclaimed, “Swing into spring. Escape the heat with our smoothies and Frappuccino’s.”
Is it winter, or spring? When the seasons are in transition, and the old season hasn’t quite given way to the new, we don’t know what kind of weather to expect or even how to dress on a given morning. When we walk out the door it might be hot, or it might be cold. Worse, it may start out warm then shift to cold while we are on the road. We are plunged into uncertainty.
When the church is in transition, the same kind of confusion surfaces. Even casual conversations can become complex, with people using language in very different ways. “Church” and “Christian” now carry baggage they didn’t possess, and have different meanings relative to individual experience. The term “evangelical” once provided identity for a diverse group of believers worldwide. Now that marker itself is contested and fragile.
Liminality is a place in between. It is emptiness and nowhere. Adolescence is the liminal space between childhood and adulthood; but what if entire communities are entering liminal space? Gareth Brandt writes, “Societal circumstances in the past few decades have created another developmental stage now known as emerging adulthood. The characteristics of this stage are inherently ambivalent, ideological, and transitional, which is why it is not easily recognizable as a distinct stage.” Brandt is describing a new experience of liminality that grows out of unique cultural conditions.
While Brandt applies this concept to individuals, the transition from modernity to post-modernity and from Christendom to post-Christendom, combined with the rise of new media, has generated a liminal space for entire communities of faith. This is a new phase, a new space in ecclesial life. Churches are entering a nowhere land that has come into being in the turbulent waters of societal shift. We have become travelers with maps that are outdated and that no longer describe the landscape. The sense that our maps no longer function increases our sense of lostness, as well as our anxiety about the future. The higher the emotional valence, the less likely we are to respond effectively.
Complex cultural forces are now generating liminal space for entire communities of people. General systems theory recognizes that the dynamics between individuals are mirrored on other scales. What is true for a family system can also be observed in organizational systems. In The Critical Journey the authors describe faith transitions as “hitting the wall.” This difficult phase, beginning with an inward journey, often occurs for individuals in mid-life. Now, however, it’s happening for whole organizations. Hitting the wall is a manifestation of liminal conditions for faith organizations. Churches that have hitherto been very outward oriented, busy and successful, find themselves confronted with their deeper motivations as they begin to decline, and a thriving ministry passes into memory. The outward journey gives way to an inward journey that requires heart work and the integration of the shadow self.
In liminal space identity is suspended. In our time we are seeing entire church families in the throes of transition: suspended in a complex dance between life and death. This transitional space generates gut-wrenching questions and tremendous insecurity. As we move into a post-Christian and post-congregational era, we seek understanding and solutions as our congregations grey and dwindle, and our ministries decline.
Your vision will become clear only when
you look into your heart …
Who looks outside, dreams.
Who looks inside, awakens. ~ Carl Jung