Rising Waters of Faith
Changing demographics and lifestyles present a challenge to the relevancy and health of faith organizations as we have known them for the past half-century, however Carol Howard Merritt, in this post from the Alban Institute, encourages us to see the opportunity for growth and vision these challenges provide… – Ed.
A Well in the Distance
by Carol Howard Merritt
Hagar stood in the desert with her son Ishmael in her arms, the dust of the dry landscape swirling about her. She’d been the slave of Sarah, wife of Abraham, and her son was conceived when Hagar was forced to have a child with Abraham. But when Sarah finally and amazingly gave birth to her own son, Isaac, she urged Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. The hostility drove Hagar and Ishmael out of their home and into the desert to die.
Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael, the mother and his child, into the barren landscape with only a little bit of water. With no protection from the elements, Hagar walked in the hot sun until she and her child had consumed all of the water; they were parched, without a drop left.
As usual, the biblical story is scant, summing up a dramatic episode in a few short paragraphs. The ancient holy writers leave a lot to the imagination, and so I envision Hagar holding her child close, trying to soothe his dry, thirsty cries.
Finally, Hagar cannot bear to see his parched lips any longer, cannot stand that her words and desperate caresses no longer comfort him. So she places her son under a bush to die. As she walks away helplessly, trying to escape her child’s cries, Hagar calls out to God, begging God to prevent her from seeing the death of her son.
At that moment of heart-wrenching distress, Hagar begins to understand she will be a mother of a great nation. It is as if she has somehow been given a taste of Abraham’s covenant, when God promised Abraham his offspring would be as numerous as the grains of sand and the stars in the sky. It is after this realization that Hagar looks up and sees a well in the distance.
I wonder what stirred within Hagar that allowed her to imagine a great nation after having just relinquished her son? What caused her to look up from that barren ground and see living waters on the horizon? Was it the same sort of wondrous divinely inspired imagination that allowed Moses to lead men and women through miles of dusty landscape, driven by a vision of something completely different: a land flowing with milk and honey?
Our Scriptures are heavy with characters who became mothers of nations, saviors of people, and leaders of movements because they were somehow able to envisage that life-saving water as they stood in their particular desert. Even though every breath they took made their mouths as dry as dust, God gave them the imagination to hope.
Their examples have inspired a long history of people who have continued to dream of streams in the midst of barren deserts, rivers in dry wilderness, and milk flowing through inhospitable wastelands. In our day, we too can sense great hope in our own seemingly barren landscapes. What may have once been fertile land for our churches is now parched.
Looking over our pews, many of us see the faithful remnant of a congregation from a half-century ago, and we wonder whether our churches will exist twenty years from now. In our denominations, churches that once boasted a membership of 3,000 have dwindled down to 150 members who can no longer afford to keep the church building running. Regularly, our governing bodies downsize and churches close.
Every once in a while, when we crack open our sanctuary doors and take a good look at what is outside, we hardly recognize the world in which we serve, because it has become so different from the one in which our churches were formed. Our denominational churches are no longer situated in the middle of a robust downtown, their proud steeples held erect through the hard work of dedicated housewives. We were seeing the world through a completely different frame then; we were working in a different context. And often those frames don’t work in a new generation for a number of reasons.
Within our old frameworks, our church ministries reached out to a different family structure. We had churches that catered to nuclear families—ones with a mother, a father, and offspring. Our congregations often relied heavily on the volunteer work of housewives and geared programming and outreach to young families.
Now people get married and have children later in life, if at all. There is no longer a mom, a dad, and two-and-a-half children in each home. A good percentage of our households are likely to be single or in a same-gender relationship. The women of our congregations typically work at full-time jobs and have less free time to volunteer in the church.
Within our old frameworks, our churches could flourish in a Eurocentric society. Now, the ethnicity and culture of our nation has grown more diverse; we no longer live in the same context in which the particularly white Protestant church flourished. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, when national quotas were abolished and U.S. borders were opened to non-European immigrants, the rich diversity of the United States has become even more vibrant. Yet our mainline churches seldom reflect the diversity of the communities in which they are located.
Within our old frameworks, the people to whom our churches reached out were largely from a Christian background. Most of the people we welcomed into our congregations had been born and raised in the church. They could easily find their way around a Bible and could recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed on demand. These men and women knew those complicated hymns and were familiar with the flow and structure of the worship service.
Today, our neighborhoods are filled with people from a wide array of religious backgrounds and expressions. We struggle to communicate our faith in the midst of such pluralism and, in our worst expressions, we avoid or discriminate against those who are not Christians.
Within our old frameworks, we could rely on social conditioning and denominational loyalty to drive people to church. Now, we need to become much more intentional and caring as we reach out to our wider communities. Our modes of communication have changed so dramatically and so quickly that the church has struggled to keep up. The younger edge of our neighborhoods speaks fluently, instantly, globally, and interactively in the world of social media, while many of our congregations struggle to put together even a basic website.
Many of our denominational churches have found it difficult to thrive in the midst of these changes. Our message has been muted as we try to communicate from generation to generation. Sometimes we’ve lost the vision to make our churches communities of welcome for our adult sons and daughters, the very people who could map out a course in our shifting deserts. They can easily communicate and minister to different family structures, an array of ethnicities, and among a variety of religious expressions.
The landscape has changed all around us. To some it feels like a desert—dry and barren, inhospitable, unable to sustain the next generation. Yet our common biblical story reminds us that we have a God who brings salvation to people who wander in the driest deserts. With a bit of divine imagination we will see the wells full of living water, as Hagar and Ishmael did. With a bit of divine imagination, we will see the milk and honey flowing all around us.
Even in the driest deserts we are beginning to see networks of tributaries flowing around us and vast constellations of stars sparkling above us. New opportunities, tools, movements, missions, and passions cascade through our wilderness landscape bringing vital ways of organizing faithful communities, communicating prayerful longings, and seeking social justice.
Read this post by Carol Howard Merritt from the blog series, “Reframing Hope” on the Religion in American History blog, as well as posts in the series by Seth Dowland, Steven Miller, and (on October 4)Brantley Gasaway.