There’s an old adage I learned years ago that claims “change is the only constant.” It’s a clever play on words and a truthful paradox. Change is constant? Well, of course it is. Whatever we encounter in life, whatever we build or cultivate, whatever we come to rely on, we can count on it changing over time. If we’re honest, we know this truth from our lived experience.
At a recent meeting of our Senior/Solo Pastor’s TIM (Together in Ministry) Group, one of our members, whose congregation is made up of people from a non-English-speaking part of the world, raised a question for us to consider. The dilemma he is facing is that he has ministered for many years to this group of folks who are emigrants. They are first generation Americans and their native tongue is not English. They were uprooted from their land and culture and came to the USA to escape oppression. It has been very important for these folks, as they gather in their faith community, to hold on to the old language and traditions. You can imagine how important and valuable it is to have this gathering in which you can at least remember home and the old ways.
One of the things that pastor shared was an expectation from many of his congregants that it was the church’s responsibility to teach their children the mother tongue and traditional practices. This seems logical, given that the church has been serving this function since the original members fled their homeland and arrived on foreign shores. (Yes, for them the USA is foreign. Think about that.) The problem, as you may have already guessed, is that the children and grandchildren of the original emigrants have increasingly assimilated to the language and culture of their new homeland. For them, the old ways of living and speaking are less and less important. It seems to me that this change is inevitable. People want to be accepted, fit in, be part of the current scene. They want to belong to the “church of what’s happening now” (for those of you who remember comedian, Flip Wilson.)
This pastor’s dilemma – and perhaps it is a dilemma for anyone who wants to love and serve the church – is how to minister to everyone involved. How does one bridge this gap between the old and new? How does one help an increasingly diverse group of people love the old while exploring the new? Following the gospel, what must we let go of in order to move fully into God’s new thing? It’s ironic that over and over our ancient words and sacred traditions tell us that God is always somewhere ahead of us making all things new. Jesus says he hasn’t come to do away with the law, but he surely came to do a number on it!
In our group, we talked about what we learned in seminary of the minster’s hybrid role of pastor, priest, and prophet. Here’s another paradox. It is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to take on all those roles at the same time. Simplistically, it is the responsibility of the priest to keep, through faithful practice, the rich traditions of the faith. The church should teach our children the old language and ways. At the same time, the minster looks at the prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, challenging at every turn the hide-bound ways of the practitioners that he believed were killing the faith. “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” Challenging words, drawing his listeners into the future, into God’s new thing. And then there is the poor pastor, caught in the middle, trying to love and care for people at both ends of a spectrum from old to new, traditional to creative, priestly to prophetic; trying to bring people together; trying to see and articulate a third way that would allow for unity in all this diversity.
FBCPA is not faced with the exact dilemma of a congregation of emigrants and refugees, but we are faced with our inevitable changes. We have language and traditions that have been part of the life of our community for years. Though the core values and rich meaning that that language and those traditions were created to carry may remain constant, the methods for communicating and moving them forward is changing as inevitably as we are aging.
As part of our renewal project, we said we wanted to explore new ways of being church, of practicing spirituality, of living out the gospel that will address the unmet needs of unchurched and underserved. The tension for some of us is that the new thing does not look exactly as we expected. It’s not shaping up the way we would do it. We’re not sure if it really honors the traditions or carries sacred values and meaning, at least not as we envision them. My challenge to each of us who love the ancient language and traditions is: what do we need to let go of so that we do not alienate those trying to follow and work out God’s new thing, losing our cherished traditions? How do we ensure that we do not lose what may be most important, relationships with the whole rainbow that is God’s family?
Since change is the only constant and we cannot control the future, can we stand aside or back a little and give the new the opportunity to take root and grow? The tree may not be the one we cultivated, the one under which we’ve pitched our tents. But maybe the new trees will still produce shade and shelter, branches, leaves and fruit of a different species that still serve our core values and the deep meaning of the traditions we have come to love. What do you think? How will we handle that constancy of change in our congregation while continuing to love and care for one another? God’s Beloved Community is coming whether we we’re ready or not. Will we be able to embrace its inevitable evolution and live into God’s new thing?
Yours on this challenging journey,