Living the questions

One of the points of conversation among church leaders these days is a reflection on how much is changing and how quickly in the life of the church. Things were changing pretty quickly in the church before the pandemic. Patterns of church attendance were shifting. People in their thirties and forties don’t remember the days of blue laws and businesses being closed on Sundays. Although many work five day work weeks, they don’t think in terms of Sundays being set aside for church and church activities. They have a lot of different recreational opportunities and their weekends afford precious little time for them. It isn’t just that participation in church activities has decreased, which it has. It is also that religious activities are a lower priority in the lives of people. Many congregations are becoming gathering places for older people, with fewer and fewer children participating. Families with children who do participate in church are looking for lower levels of commitment in terms of time and energy.

The pandemic accelerated some of the changes in church life. With congregations halting in-person worship, members shifted their priorities. Being able to participate in worship online, although not the same as being together in person, offered an appealing flexibility for many. No need to get up and get dressed on Sunday morning. One can lounge and enjoy another cup of coffee while listening to the service online. The experience was less participatory. Despite their commitment to building community, church leaders began to think in terms of production quality and other performance terms.

Now the talk among church leaders includes an attempt to envision what the new future for the church might be. There is general agreement that churches are not going to go back to the way things were. There is less agreement about a vision for the church that is emerging.

Some of my colleagues found the pandemic to bring about a more relaxed pace for their work. Meetings were shortened. Decisions were made more quickly. There were less opportunities for pastoral work, so there was less work that was done. No more nursing home visits. Hospital and home visits were made over the phone or computer. Things could be scheduled. There were less interruptions. Other colleagues found themselves working harder than ever before. New programs were added at new times of the day. Developing an online presence, with all of the technologies involved, was a steep learning curve. Funds had to be raised to finance new cameras, computers, and sound systems and ways of sharing over the Internet. Cell phones and tablet computers became cameras and monitors. Sanctuaries became studios. And all of this involved more learning, more work, and fewer people to share the work.

Some congregations are emerging from the pandemic lock down with buildings that have been empty or nearly so for more than a year. Deferred maintenance is visible and decisions need to be made about how to maintain the institution. Some church leaders are envisioning a much leaner organization with fewer and smaller buildings. Many enjoyed working from home and are reluctant to return to church offices as they once were.

Perhaps it is just a reflection of my age, but I think that some of the seasons of our lives benefit from looking back and reflecting on the experiences of those who have gone before. We are turn-of-the century people. Even though it is now more than two decades into the 21st century, many of us remember the anxiety that the dawn of a new century brought. We might not remember the details of Y2K, but we do remember the anxiety about the future. And the questions about what shape the future will take linger. Psychologists tell us that there is more anxiety and less certainty in recent years. The pandemic brought out anxieties that had been less visible prior to the changes brought about by a global health threat.

Looking back at the last turn of the century, the dawning of the 20th century, Rainer Maria Rilke stands out as one who found words to express what it means to be a turn of the century person. Living between 1875 and 1926, he could not have known what the 20th Century was to bring in terms fo two world wars and unprecedented upheaval. The Austrian poet was, however, sensitive to the changes that the new century brought. A few years ago, I spent some time with a new translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, reading the verses carefully and slowly and found them to be surprisingly contemporary. A new translation of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” is now available. I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy, yet, but I have read a few reviews that include some thoughtful quotes from the book.

In the forth letter of the book, Rilke writes, “I ask you, dear sir, to have patience with all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, like closed rooms, like books written in a foreign language. Don’t try to find the answers now. They cannot be given anyway, because you would not be able to live them. For everything is to be lived. Live the questions now. Perhaps you then may gradually, without noticing, one day in the future live into the answers.”

“Living the Questions” is the name chosen for a group of resources aimed at Christians who have moved beyond the conventions of the past and still value the spirit of the teachings of Jesus. The concept echoes Rilke’s invitation. We may well be at a point in our history where we are not yet able to see the church that is emerging. We may not know what the future holds for religious institutions. We can’t imagine the roles clergy and lay leaders may be called to assume. It is a season of transition and change. It is a time of living the questions.

As Rilke promised the young poet, the answers emerge gradually and only when we are willing to live the questions. The church has projected a kind of certainty in the past that may not be possible in our current circumstances. Like previous turn-of-the-century generations, ours may be a generation of living the questions.

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