It didn’t take me long after moving to California to learn that when you spend the day on the beach, you never turn your back to the surf. Even on beaches with gently lapping waves, every once in a while a rogue wave – several times more powerful than an ordinary wave – comes ashore. If your back is turned to that rogue wave, you are likely to be knocked off your feet. Once you’ve lost your footing, it’s very difficult to regain it. You’re quickly swept out to sea and find yourself in water that is dangerously over your head. Given this scenario, the most important beach safety rule is “always face the waves.”
I found myself reflecting on this theme as a colleague and I were preparing for a presentation for the presbytery that covers the state of Oregon. I wasn’t just thinking about waves though; I was thinking about tsunamis.
The western edge of Oregon lies along the Cascadia fault, a fault even more dangerous than its more famous cousin to the south, the San Andreas. Most Oregonians who live on the coast are in a tsunami zone. When (not if) the “big one” happens on the Cascadia fault, giant walls of water will roll onto the beaches and continue far inland. The residents prepare by developing tsunami warning systems and practicing tsunami evacuation drills in their schools.
I was thinking about tsunamis as I prepared for the talk, because – as a west coast pastor – I have long been aware that we face two kinds of tsunamis out here: a physical one and a metaphorical one. From the beginning of my ministry in the mid-1970s, I knew things were very different in California than they had been in Mississippi, where I had grown up. The cultural context for ministry was so different that it took me a decade to develop an image to describe my experience.
I began to imagine that a tsunami of cultural change was sweeping over the west coast. It was washing away most of the cultural moorings on which the church had relied for generations. Church leaders weren’t quite sure what to do, given this radically altered landscape. They just knew that what had “worked” in the past – programs, styles of worship, outreach to engage the communities around them – were no longer having much impact.
We’re still trying to figure out how to be the church in the ravaged landscape where the tools that served us well in the past have lost their edge.
Needing to face squarely into this tsunami of change is a mindset that’s helpful everywhere in America, not just on the west coast.
If you’ve ever seen a video of a tsunami coming on shore you probably were amazed at how relentlessly it pushes inland with a seemingly unstoppable power. While this tsunami of change may have started on the west coast, it has now washed over the whole country, reaching even those places we may think of as the last strongholds of Christendom.
When I began a new pastorate in Nashville in 2003, I told their leaders the story Will Willimon tells about the day Christendom died in the small South Carolina town in which he was raised. The story centers around the night that the local theater showed a John Wayne movie on Sunday night in defiance of the state’s blue laws and Willimon snuck out of his church’s youth fellowship meeting to go watch that movie. Shortly after I told that story, one of the church’s leaders approached me to say he knew the day Christendom died in Nashville. I asked him when that happened, and he replied, “It was when they began to run NASCAR on Sundays.”
You will have your own story about when Christendom died in your community, your own narrative about when the tsunami of change first loomed over your church. But everyone has a similar story to tell. While all those stories have some common overarching themes, the particularities of your story speak to the importance of context in understanding what has happened to us all.
One of the most important things we can do as we are trying to figure out how to be faithful in this changed cultural landscape is to talk with one another. Find other church leaders in your community and in your church’s regional body who are consciously wrestling with change and wrestling with hope. Ask them what they see, and tell them what you see.
The more we talk with one another and do the best job we can of describing what we see, the better picture we all will have of the changed cultural context in which we minister. And the better we understand that context, the more faithful we can be to our call to live out the Gospel in ways that will make sense to the community around us and draw our neighbors toward Jesus.