“A crisis,” the Stanford economist Paul Romer once said, “is a terrible thing to waste.” Romer’s oft-quoted quip is a play on the 1980’s advertising motto of the United Negro College Fund – “a mind is terrible thing to waste.” A crisis requires us to think about, talk about, and bring about changes that we would not think about, talk about, or bring about in so-called “normal” times.
In our text, Jesus points to a coming crisis for the Temple, for Jerusalem, and for Israel as a whole. By the time the Lukan author tells the story, that particular crisis has come and gone. But it is likely that the Lukan communities are facing their own crises. Our text serves, then, as teaching, warning, and encouragement for Christian communities facing and responding to their own crises.
It is a well-worn cliché to refer to the Chinese ideogram that represents the English word, “crisis.” The cliché is that the ideogram is composed of two characters. The one represents the idea of “danger.” The other represents the idea of “opportunity.” This rendering of the character was noted in English as early as 1938 and was adopted by Lewis Mumford in 1944.
The cliché gained its current status as a truism when John F. Kennedy referred to it in campaign speeches. After that, the cliché has appeared everywhere, especially as a way to encourage organizations to consider constructive change in the face of challenges. In fact, linguists say that the character is not quite so optimistic. It really refers to something more like a precarious inflection point.
That doesn’t rule out the idea of “opportunity.” But it does remind us that a “crisis” can go either way – toward constructive change or toward inaction. The truth of the cliché remains important. It’s not the presence of the crisis itself that matters. What matters is how we respond to it.
A crisis can make constructive responses possible because the system has loosened up a bit. I’ve always appreciated Kurt Lewin’s three step change management model. I’ve taught it to church groups and applied it in my own thinking. There are moments when an organization, especially in the face of severe challenge or disruption, “unfreezes.” That is, the normal structures, procedures, priorities, assumptions, and values of the organization can be called into question.
This unfreezing doesn’t last forever. But it is a time when real change can be made. As the challenge or crisis passes, the organization tends to “refreeze.” If no changes have been made, the organization refreezes into something close to the previous condition. That’s what we mean when we say that we want things to “go back to normal.” If constructive changes have been made, then the organization will refreeze, but in a different configuration. Hopefully the new configuration is better adapted to the changed environment.
The pandemic has challenged Christian congregations to “unfreeze” in order to deal with the challenging and changed environment. In a matter of weeks, congregations shifted from face-to-face worship to online interactions. Church leaders became content producers and managers. The reach of many congregations was multiplied many times over. Religious communities made changes and accomplished tasks that would have been unimaginable in “normal” times. Organizations were fluid, experimental, and innovative.
That was exhausting for those tasked with exploring and executing those changes. The consequences of that exhaustion continue to surface and impact congregations and church leaders. Clergy in particular, and especially in small and medium-sized congregations, are exhausted to the point of burnout. Yet, there is also a surprising amount of vitality and hope coming out of this crisis.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has been studying and continues to study how the pandemic has impacted and is impacting congregations. I’d recommend the YouTube talk by Hartford Institute Director, Dr. Scott Thumma. It’s an interim report but offers some interesting insights into both the challenges and the possibilities within and coming out of the Covid crisis.
Thumma argues that we need to see the “Pandemic” as “endemic.” When a disease or condition is endemic, it is an ongoing reality rather than a finite feature of the moment. While the coronavirus will at some point fade into the background at some point in the future, the impacts of the pandemic experience will not go away.
Those who spend time with American religious communities know that these communities have been changed in ways that are not reversible. No matter how much we would like it, there is no “going back to the way things were.” Thumma argues that the pandemic experience has not introduced new elements into the lives of those religious communities. Instead, the pandemic experience has accelerated changes and amplified challenges that we had been, to some degree, ignoring up until March of 2020.
Those changes and challenges include declines in median worship attendance numbers among American congregations. That median moved from 137 in 2000 to 65 in 2020. Notice that this median was measured prior to the pandemic experience. In mainline congregations, that media in 2020 was fifty. Therefore, half of the mainline American congregations in 2020 had fallen below the threshold of being sustainable as solo institutions. Some one hundred and fifty thousand congregations fit this profile.
It’s not that those small congregations are destined to disappear. However, the model for ministry that sustained those congregations for the last two centuries will not work. Those congregations and leaders who have embraced the crisis as a chance to change, will likely continue to serve their communities. Those congregations and leaders who plan to go back to “business as usual” will not.
Thumma enumerates the likely challenges that are endemic as congregations and leaders face the future here in America. In most places, face-to-face attendance numbers will not return to pre-pandemic levels. Virtual participation in congregational life is no longer regarded as optional by many people. The needs for physical space for congregations is changing. Alternative uses for the space should be explored. New patterns for both professional and volunteer ministry are needed.
In the face of these demands, leaders and volunteers will be challenged with exhaustion and burnout. And a number of congregations will face the realities of closure in the next five to ten years.
On the other hand, the pandemic has unfrozen many congregations. New ways of doing things have been adopted. And congregations have realized not only that they must change but that they can change. New models and methods are in place and being used. Congregations have been forced back to first principles in order set priorities and form practices. Partnerships with other congregations and other organizations have been forged and are bearing fruit.
Thumma reported on the importance of optimism for congregational flourishing. While attitudes generally cannot change the physical and fiscal realities of the moment, attitudes can certainly change how we respond to those realities. His talk reminded me of the power and importance of Appreciative Inquiry as a tool and process for organizational change. And it’s a set of practices that I’m bringing to the congregation with which I’m journeying for now.
Appreciative Inquiry reminds us that everything we do as leaders is intervention, especially in times of change. The intention to look at ourselves is intervention. Choosing to look at our reality will begin to change that reality. Inquiry is intervention. Asking questions about our reality will begin to change that reality. Interaction is intervention. Choosing to talk about our reality together will begin to change that reality. And imagination is intervention. Positive propositions about our future will change that future.
What does this have to do with our text? A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. As we face a crisis, we can learn from those who’ve gone before us. God is faithful. The resurrection of Jesus is the triumphant sign of that faithfulness, even in the face of death. There’s more going on than meets the eye, and we can trust the Holy Spirit to be at work.
As a result, we can live with patient endurance. That’s more than just hunkering down and holding on. That’s acting as if the future is already here, and that future is what God intends. It is not our task to predict the future. That’s for others (who will likely get it wrong). Instead, our task as Jesus followers is to discern where God is leading, now and in the time to come.
Resources and References
Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.