Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” -John 14:5
St.James' new HR working group met with all the St. James staff this week, and one of the topics we discussed was the rapid and profound changes facing U.S. churches these days. Compared to the mid 20th century, on the whole, numbers are down, resources are down, attendance is down, and participation is down across all denominations, particularly here in the northeast. While there are still plenty of lively and faithful communities (St. James among them!), we are no longer the formidable institutions we once were. Church is no longer at the center of American civic life. Regular church attendance is no longer something the majority of citizens have in common. Our culture no longer holds religious participation as an expectation. Church is no longer something everyone just does. Rather, going to church is something only some people choose.
For a few decades, church leaders have been seeking functional solutions to see if we can 'fix' these trends. We've tried innovative programming, online communications, diverse musical styles and experimental liturgies. But despite our best efforts, and despite many experiences of renewal along the way, numbers continue to go down, resources continue to dwindle and participation and attendance continue to wane. A recent, well publicized report from the Pew Research Center describes the overall decline of religion in America. It is a sobering report. Many have concluded that we are living through the next significant reformation of the church. It is a time when we need to acknowledge that we will simply will not be going back to how things used to be and now need to turn our full attention to moving forward faithfully into an unknown future, to boldly be the church of the 21st century - what our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, calls "the Jesus Movement."
In this Sunday's gospel passage, Jesus tells the disciples he's going to leave them to enter a new phase of his ministry. He tells them that he's preparing a place for them and that they should follow him. Thomas says, "But Jesus, we don't know where you're headed. How can we know the way?" I can relate to how Thomas is feeling - the feeling of having no road map. We know we're heading somewhere new, but we have nothing to program into the GPS, no flourishing models to emulate, and no 'way we've always done it' to fall back on anymore. Sometimes it feels like we're stumbling around in the dark not knowing where the light switch has been moved to.
But the light of Christ never goes out, even in the times when we're having trouble seeing it. This is not the first time or era that the church has been faced with challenges, and it will not be the last. Being the church means following in the footsteps of Jesus - wherever he leads - even if we can't make out the horizon ahead yet. Sometimes where he leads can be very unexpected. Sometimes it feels risky. Sometimes it feels even downright uncomfortable. Nonetheless, like Thomas and many other disciples through the ages, although we do not know where we are headed, we do know the way. The way is shown to us by Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.
I'm sure we've all had times in our own lives when we had no idea how things were going to turn out - or what the best outcome in a given situation would even look like, let alone how to get there. Not knowing what to expect can be very stressful. But we need to remind one another that we do have a light. We have a strong foundation. And we know the way that leads to abundant life. And so we persist in praying with the psalmist:
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you, God, are my crag and my stronghold.