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When Church Stops Working: Embracing Humility

Updated: Jan 2

We know that churches have stopped working. Now the question is, what do we do?

We are still convinced that we know where we are going and that we just need a better method of getting there.

“When Church Stops Working” was the theme of the webinar we held last month with Andrew Root as a guest. We followed this up with a second webinar “Forming Communities of Hope” where we examined some of the practical ways of addressing this unravelling of church life. A critical challenge confronting Euro-tribal churches in the United Kingdom and North America is just that: our churches have stopped working. We are all trying to figure out what to do. Too often that question of what to do about is a question of technique and tactic - how to canoe the mountains, how to be adaptive, how to create new, innovative forms of church or become agile leaders. Tactics, tactics, tactics, all borrowed from everywhere except a life that dwells in God's agency: Emmanuel, God with us.

This was part of what Andrew Root was getting at in our first webinar when he observed that we are chasing the wrong diagnosis of what has happened to the churches in the unravelling – we are not attending to God and God's agency amongst us.

The question of what to do when the church stops working has several responses. I want to address just one in this post. As a start, we need to lay down our tactics and programs for fixing. We need the humility to recognize that we cannot fix the situation. This is a hard ask for people trained to be experts, to be in control, to analyze the data and determine outcomes. We want to get out of the canoe, find a new vehicle, and move on because we are still convinced that we know where we are going and that we just need a better method of getting there. These are not the characteristics of the humility required of this moment.

Embracing Humility

What I mean by humility here is somewhat different from the personal humility that is part of an individual Christian’s life. The humility I want to describe can be expressed by referencing Albert H. Van Den Heuvel’s 1953 book, The Humiliation of the Church. The two words, humility and humiliation come from the same source in the word houmous, or earth. In each case, though for different reasons, the words describe that which is low, close to the ground - rooted in the houmous of the earth, the mud out of which God created human beings.

Van Den Heuvel was describing the situation of the European churches at the midpoint of the 20th century. The humiliation had to do with movements that had been remaking Europe for more than a century. There had been a thorough disestablishment of the churches. They were inexorably moved from what was described as the centre to the periphery of society. Everywhere on the Continent, churches of all stripes had been diminished. Connected with this was the apparent penetration of secularization. These forces combined to create what Van Den Heuvel called the humiliation of the church. These dynamics have been well documented in many books since that time. European churches have known this humiliation for a long time.

This humiliation came to North America long after it had become a clear reality in Europe. It is now complete in Canada. While one can still find areas where this is not the case, this same humiliation process has established itself across the United States in the once-dominant Euro-tribal churches. In North America in the second decade of the new millennium, these churches are just faintly awakening to their humiliation.

Our concern is to ask about the relationship of this humiliation to humility. The loss of place of these churches commenced in North America in the late 1970s. But this was also the same post-war period in which another story about progress, technique, and the triumph of method came to inhabit the North American imagination. It became a culture, epitomized in Kennedy and the space race, that swallowed the pill of "we have the technology, we can fix it” with no sense of God's agency needed with this pill. We can just dispose of the canoe, get a new machine, and meet our goals.

These two dynamics developed side by side – the humiliation and the technological triumphalism. Together, they have had massive implications for our understanding of the unravelling and our practices as churches. The rapid humiliation of the churches became fused with this conviction that with the right methods, we can fix the humiliation. Alongside the erosion of the churches, this other narrative of human agency, technique, method, and prediction has come to shape the desire of the church and its leaders. It is now the default shaping our understanding of the situation.

The result is that the increasing anxieties around the church’s humiliation are continually being filtered through this other narrative. The default lie keeps telling us that with the right technique, data, and methods (innovation, adaptations, agility and so forth), we will turn the humiliation around. We will fix the situation.

To state the point in another way, the humiliation of the churches brought with it an abandonment of humility. Humility would involve the painful recognition that we, Euro-tribal Christians, have been brought down, all the way down to the mud and dirt of the earth. Our posture, however, has been to refuse to accept this situation because this other story keeps telling us that we are agents with the capacity to turn this situation around. Rather than embracing a humility that sees the humiliation as the place God has brought us, these churches have been on one, endless quest for techniques to reverse the humiliation.

A radically different posture is needed for this moment. Humility means coming to terms with and embracing the humiliation as a first step in our being able to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

In the next post, I will engage what it might mean to become communities that embrace our displacement. In the meantime, we want to invite you to the continuation of our webinar explorations on this theme:

"The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish." - John 1:14 (The Message)

One of the practices of God’s people that is being rediscovered is the practice of “Dwelling.” We dwell in the text and in our neighbourhoods. We dwell with the people of that place and dwell there “for” the sake of the world.

Join us as we discover the importance, value, and practice of "Dwelling".


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The Commons Network

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