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Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches

Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches

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by Gil Rendle, Robert Schnase (Foreword by)

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The last forty years have seen transitions in mainline churches that feel, for many, like a journey into the wilderness. Yet God is calling us in this moment, not to grieve over the changes we have experienced but to hear the call to a new mission, and a new faithfulness.

In Journey in the Wilderness, Gil Rendle draws on decades as a pastor and church


The last forty years have seen transitions in mainline churches that feel, for many, like a journey into the wilderness. Yet God is calling us in this moment, not to grieve over the changes we have experienced but to hear the call to a new mission, and a new faithfulness.

In Journey in the Wilderness, Gil Rendle draws on decades as a pastor and church consultant to point a way into a hopeful future. The key to embracing the wilderness is to learn new skills in leading change, to reach beyond a position of privilege and power to become churches that serve God’s hurting people.

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Abingdon Press
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Journey in the Wilderness

New Life for Mainline Churches
By Gilbert R Rendle

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4267-1065-0

Chapter One

Our Particular Exodus

It isn't that often that a whole people go through a religious wilderness together. Yet in North America that has been the case in my lifetime and in my experience. There have been historical instances, of course, all along the way, from the beginning of the European settlement of North America to the initial arrivals of religious people bringing their practices, followed by shifts, schisms, realignments, mergers, and inventions of groups, sects, and denominations. At some point or another there have been moments of discomfort in each of our religious bodies—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—that have required refocusing, restructuring, or restaffing. But rarer is the radical, rooted shift in a global culture that prompts and requires a whole people to question their practices and enter a prolonged wilderness in search of their future way of life. Ours has been such an exodus, an escape (or perhaps an expulsion) from a constraining past in search of a promised, and findable, future.

My personal experience in the church has been defined by this exodus. It has been a pilgrimage through a changed North American landscape. In reality the changed landscape is global rather than North American. The explosive growth of a new form of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, the global spread of Islam, the growing practice of Hinduism and Buddhism in non-Asian countries including the United States, and the essential disconnecting of postmodern people from modern and pre-modern religious practices all attest to a broad-based and wholesale change. Nonetheless, given the massive changes that have brought both turmoil and ferment to all religious communities, this book is about our particular exodus through the wilderness. "Our particular exodus" refers to the mainline church in North America, which is the church I have been a part of throughout my life. The word exodus is rooted in the Greek (ex—out of; hodos—way). It offers the image of a people who have been taken out of a way of life that was well known and deeply established. My experience was to be born into a North American mainline denominational church that was strong, confident, growing, and a dominant voice in shaping the norms of North American life. As a young seminary graduate, I was ordained into a mainline church that was still able to live out of its assumptions of strength, confidence, growth, and dominance. However, my time as an adult working in the mainline church took me out of that earlier way and introduced me to a time of questioning, doubt, and searching. My time, along with that of many brothers and sisters across the mainline church, has been a wilderness experience, and I have been changed by the journey.

I do not despair of the fundamental connection between God and the people. The search for and interest in a relationship with God show no evidence of weakening in all their multifaith and personal spiritual dimensions. But I am the inheritor of a particular way to be with God—a Wesleyan inheritance through The United Methodist Church. Like my brothers and sisters in other mainline expressions of Christianity, I now ask, What do we bring to this relationship between God and God's people? Do we have a word to share? Can we shape a way to be that offers a current connection to God and to God's dreams for us and for our world?

I am encouraged. The longer I am in this wilderness, the greater my hope grows. For I have been witness to people all around me who have been open to learning new ways to live what were earlier and deeply established identities. Above all else the wilderness is a place to learn. The wilderness is where we learn again to live in a new way because old supports are gone, old assumptions no longer hold true, and old practices either fail or are no longer possible. To live, the people must learn anew even those most basic things that in the old homeland were hidden by our easy assumptions and learned behavior.

We have been learning. In fact, one question that this book seeks to address is, What have we learned by living in the wilderness for the last forty years that will sustain us in the future? In reality the question should be framed as, What have we taught ourselves? There are times and situations in which we must learn what no one can teach us. We cannot turn to others who have gone ahead because no one has been in front of us on the journey. We cannot point outside ourselves. We learn—teach ourselves—as a "community of practice." We learn by doing. Getting clear and bringing to conscious awareness what we have learned will instruct us further about how we can live in our future. By my measure, we have learned much. The story of our exodus is rich, and we are already changed. Of course, there is much left to do, and not everyone will want to do it. There is little doubt that our mainline denominations will be changed in size and shape by the rest of the journey. There is little doubt that a good percentage of our local congregations, perhaps as many as 25 to 30 percent, will not live through the journey and they will close. There is little doubt that our denominational structures, staffing, and use of resources will continue to undergo deep change. Nonetheless, we are being helped and shaped by what we have learned, our trust in God has deepened, and we have sufficient bread for the rest of the journey.

This book is framed by the metaphor of exodus, thinking about the pilgrimage of the mainline church out of old ways and into a new and unknown territory. Walter Brueggemann points out that the usefulness of a metaphor is not in a search for a direct connection between one's reality and the images of the metaphor. The relationship between a metaphor and the reality it reflects is odd, playful, and ill fitting, which allows the metaphor to show us more than we would have otherwise seen in our own experience. In this case the metaphor of exodus is meant to help us recognize ourselves as a displaced people who need to trust God for our future and who need to be willing to learn new ways and reshape our lives as we travel. The metaphor allows us to recall that without courage fear overwhelms, and the people will prefer to return to the old but deadly slaveries. We recall that in the wilderness old diets are replaced with new foods; old slave masters are replaced with new leaders, organization, and structure. We recall that there are times when the path ahead seems so clear it is as if lit by a pillar of fire; there are times when the path ahead is so unclear it is best to pitch tent and wait; there are times when some paths that seemed so promising peter out and steps must be retraced. We recall that at times the right hand and the left hand get disconnected and disorganized so that at the key moment that new commandments are received on the mountaintop, the same commandments are being broken at the mountain base. We recall also that through such a messy and oh-so-human exodus, the people are changed from those who were slaves in the old land to become a new nation for God, called to live in a new place.

I suggest that in our dominant North American bias toward orderliness, we perhaps expect too much from an exodus. We expect that the trip can be scheduled on a clear time line, that leaders will know the right direction to walk every day, that faithfulness will not be challenged, and that everyone will willingly take the trip together without argument. Were such an orderly trip even possible, the fact remains that neat, tidy trips produce little learning and perhaps, in the end, no change.

We've Been Here Before

One idea that sustains me on our particular exodus is that we will manage this deep transition as God's people because we have been here before. We are the people of the original Exodus and the Exile. We have been displaced before. We have learned to sing the Lord's song in a foreign land before. Despite our best efforts to escape hard and, at times, distasteful work, we have been delivered up on the shores of Nineveh before and been given new directions. And through it all, we today have received an inheritance from those earlier people who faced the wilderness and responded with deepened theology, richer hymnody, and more authentic community. It has been messy, but we've done it before.

Beginning in January of 2006, I was invited to provide primary leadership at two large gatherings of Roman Catholic priests in the Midwest, each of which met for four days to learn about how to lead change. Faced with deep challenges within the Roman Catholic Church, of changing membership, changing attendance patterns, and the need to merge weakened but deeply ethnic parishes into new merged cross-ethnic parishes, these groups of about 250 priests met with me, a Protestant teacher, in gatherings along with their bishops and archbishops to consider their leadership in regard to such changes coming from the ground up. These were unprecedented gatherings in a church with a heritage where change is usually introduced from the top down and where there is a well-established practice of working only with teachers of their own faith.

On the second afternoon of each event Father Thomas Tifft presented a historical perspective of change in the Roman Catholic Church. Tom is rector and professor of church history at Saint Mary Seminary and Graduate School in Ohio and, as such, offered both a pastoral and an academic review, tinged with humor. His task was to identify other times when the church faced such deep change as in this present moment. He identified six periods that are worth our review. They are in very abbreviated form because of the summary of learnings that Tom distilled. The six periods are as follows:

1. Acts 6:1-7: Having received complaints about the distribution of resources, the apostles recognized that they were dealing with a very changed situation. They responded by rethinking their community, clarifying roles, and realigning the work. The first deacons were appointed and the apostles were given the task to preach the word. Acts 15: The apostles were faced with the question of including Gentiles without requiring them to embrace Mosaic law. The Council of Jerusalem listened to both sides and in its decisions changed the church from a local community to a global movement. 2. Emperor Constantine granting tolerance in 313: The first persecutions beginning with Nero continued for 250 years and eventually awakened the emperor Constantine to the Christian message. The persecutions ended with his conversion, yet Constantine's acceptance was a double-edged sword recognizing and supporting Christians, on the one side, and putting the church in an inferior position under the power of the ruler, on the other side. The early monastic movement was a protest against—a withdrawal from—state alignment. 3. Gregorian reform (ninth through eleventh centuries): The Norman and Viking invasions provided a dark period for the church. The church lived under almost total control of the state to the point that local lords rather than the church appointed the priests. Strong Italian families took over the papacy as their own personal tool and misused it, prompting a deep need for reform. The movement of reform headed by monks enforced celibacy as the rule for clergy in order to correct misbehaviors from the popes on down, ended lay authority over clergy, reestablished papal authority, and resolved disputes vertically through authority rather than horizontally through power. 4. The Reformation and the Council of Trent (sixteenth century): Never before had so many priests and religious women abandoned the church, with as much as 50 percent of Europe embracing Protestantism. The response, twenty to thirty years later, was the Catholic Reformation, which did not try to reestablish relationships or reunite with Protestants but set out Catholic doctrine in the areas of papacy, episcopacy, and the pastoral role. The church responded by going back to what was essential. 5. The emergence of liberalism and the rise of individualism (nineteenth century): The secular impact of the French Revolution in areas such as civil divorce, civil marriage, and public education attacked the role of the church. Liberalism, which introduced the freedom of the individual, stressed human dignity and autonomy while also demonstrating hostility to a church aligned with old political forms. The liberal Catholicism of the nineteenth century sought to reestablish a relationship between church and culture. 6. The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965): The council debated the importance of continuity or discontinuity with the past and whether authority was only top down or could be more inclusive. (Should attention be given to collaboration and the vocabulary of the servant?) Changes with lasting impact were made: liturgy was revised to make it more intelligible to laypeople; the church understood itself as the whole people of God, and attitudes toward and practice with other Christians were shifted; and the church called for a new dialogue with the modern world.

This informative review of Christian history from a skilled historian captured the essentials out of complexity. It was further proof that we have been here before, and rehearsing the preceding times of deep change should, by itself, help us deal with the anxiety we feel in our present uncertainness. But further support comes from identifying ways that the church found to address such wilderness experiences. Tom concluded with seven general lessons drawn from the past times of deep change faced by the church. His summary follows with my brief observations:

1. Things move slowly in the church. (This conclusion surprised no one and prompted group laughter that comes from self-recognition, which we Protestants can share with our Roman Catholic brothers.) 2. Because things move slowly in the church, we need to be a people of great patience who resist the temptation of cynicism. (Connecting patience with resistance to cynicism was a new and important insight to me.) 3. The church has a long tradition of making decisions collaboratively through councils, and top-down authority is not always the best. (This observation offers a new perspective on what feels to be unending and iterative motions, debates, and studies that come out of general conferences, general assemblies, and regional and global conferences of our denominational church bodies.) 4. The church responds best when it recognizes what is essential, what is primary. (Indeed, the conversation about what is essential has been at the heart of our wilderness experience of the past forty years. Much of this book focuses on the leadership task and the skills necessary to claim the essentials while dealing with the confusion of an accretion of established practices and the conflicting preferential voices of people and groups with competing needs.)

5. The church needs to constantly discern and stay in touch with people. (This point is essential. What makes it difficult is that the people the church needs to connect with are not necessarily the people already in the church but the people who are not yet in the church and for whom the church is now called. How can one be an evangel to those who cannot understand what is spoken? How can one be a missionary to those whose language is not understood? The tasks of discernment and connection are today greatly complicated by a people whose generational styles shift and multiply quickly and a people whose global character holds competing claims.)

6. Our God is a God of surprises. (Indeed, this may be one of the most difficult lessons. We can never allow ourselves to believe that we are in control and to miss seeing God as capable of surprising us. But neither can we risk directing our resources and attention to those places that hold little potential and will live only if they are a surprise from God. Discernment is a complex task of leadership that always requires wise decision making in order to direct resources and is accompanied by a willingness to be wrong when surprised by God, who moves in different directions.)


Excerpted from Journey in the Wilderness by Gilbert R Rendle Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gil Rendle serves as Senior Consultant with The Institute for Clergy and Congregational Excellence of The Texas Methodist Foundation in Austin, Texas, and as an independent consultant working with issues of change and leadership in denominations. An ordained United Methodist minister, Rendle served as senior pastor of two urban congregations in Pennsylvania for sixteen years and as a denominational consultant for The United Methodist Church for nine years.

In training workshops and conferences, Rendle has led numerous large and small groups in practical learning that directly impacts participants’ decisions and practice in their leadership roles. He is the author of six books, a contributor to four books, and the author of numerous articles and monographs. His most recent book is Journey in the Wilderness:New Life for Mainline Churches (Abingdon Press, 2010). Gil is a resident of Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife, Lynne.

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