Right after I turned forty years old I went to see my optometrist. We were moving from Little Rock to Wilmington and my very budget conscious wife insisted I should go since for a few more weeks we would still have vision coverage through her job. Nothing was really wrong, it had just been a few years since I’d made an appointment.
My doctor, however, was expecting something different. “Has it happened yet,” he asked. “Has what happened,” I asked, getting a little worried at his grim tone. “I thought you came to see me because you woke up last week and you couldn’t see. It happens to almost everyone, right about the time they turn forty. One day you’re going to wake up and everything is going to look completely different.”
I had never heard that before and, honestly, I had a hard time believing it…until it happened. A few months later, almost overnight, my relatively good 20/40 eyes disappeared. Suddenly I required a prescription expensive enough to sell a kidney for a new pair of glasses.
I wonder if that’s how Cleopas and unnamed disciple #2 felt on the road to Emmaus that day. All the people who thought that the Messiah had finally come and his name was Jesus had to have been incredibly disappointed the day he was crucified. They had a vision of who they thought Jesus was but it turned out they couldn’t see as clearly as they thought.
I also wonder if that’s how most of us involved in congregational ministry feel today. Many of us have been doing it long enough to remember a day when things looked very different. Oh sure, maybe we’d needed a slight adjustment to our ministry prescriptions from time to time, but by and large things were relatively predictable. We had a vision of church that seemed to work. Work hard. Preach well. Make sure children’s ministry and youth ministry are excellent. Show hospitality to guests and visit people in the hospital and you can expect things to go fairly smoothly in congregational ministry. And that vision of church worked just fine…until it didn’t.
Now, for many of us, our sight is so blurry its feel more like we’re stumbling around in the dark. I’d like to tell you that a minor adjustment or two will make a big difference, but that’s not what the data seems to indicate.
According to the Gallup organization, in 1948, only two percent of Americans considered themselves to be nonreligious, but between 2002 and 2016 that number jumped from 10 to 18 percent. For those of you keeping score at home, in 14 years the number of nonreligious people in the US grew more than in the previous half century.
Or what about this–in 1975, 68% of Americans had confidence in the Church and/or in organized religion, but by 2019 that number had dropped to 36%.
Of course most of us in congregational ministry don’t need statistics to tell us that the tide on institutional Christianity in America is going out. The sanctuary has less people in it. Budgets are flat. And the church has most definitely lost the cultural influence it used to have. All we have to do is open our eyes and we can see what’s happening right there in front of us.
Or can we? I’ve started wondering if maybe this moment we find ourselves in is another Emmaus moment.
Cleopas and his friend met a “stranger” on the road to Emmaus. Maybe you’ve wondered, like I have, just what was going on for them not to have recognized Jesus. The only explanation I can come up with is that the crucifixion and the resurrection changed things.
Maybe that’s a clue for us too. There’s a good chance that much of what we thought we knew about how to do Church is dead or dying. But the Church itself isn’t dead, it’s just looks different when it’s raised to walk in newness of life.
That’s where vision comes in. What seems to be different about this moment in the life of the Church is that there isn’t going to be just one vision for the 21st Century Church. The way that God is going to appear at First Baptist, Wilmington is not only different than it was fifty years ago, but the way that God is going to appear at First Baptist, Wilmington is also different than the way God is going to appear at Wayne Presbyterian in Philadelphia. And that requires vision.
But the really good news is that I’ve seen the amazing things that are still happening in congregations all across the country who have developed a fresh vision of what Jesus is up to in their particular ministry context. And that more than anything is why I’m excited to be a part of the work of the Center for Healthy Churches. That’s what we do. We try to help churches see more clearly who they are. We try to help churches find leaders who have a gift for spotting where Jesus wants to take a congregation.
So, if you woke up recently and your view of what your congregation might be and do is a little fuzzy, don’t despair. Jesus is probably closer than you realize, and he can help you see what’s possible if you’ll let him give you a new set of eyes to help you see the possibilities.