The Signs of the Times
Amos 5:13-14; Mt. 16:1-3

I am optimistic about the church long term. I read the same books as David Brooks, the Op-Ed writer at the New York Times. Two weeks ago, he wrote a piece that we are all trending in the direction towards finding meaning and purpose in our lives. These questions, always present in our lives, simply become more pronounced as the world-wide standard of living rises and becomes more integrated.
“What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so that I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?” These are the very questions that the church has struggled with for a couple thousand years now.
Brooks points out that “Public debate is now under moralized and over politicized. We have many shows where people argue about fiscal policy but not so many on how to find a vocation or how to measure the worth of your life.”
At the same time, we are being inundated with more information but we are less able to process it by zooming out to see the big picture. “Intellectual prestige has drifted… towards neuroscientists, economists, evolutionary biologists, and big data analysts but” as Brooks notes, these data experts on trends, “are not in the business of offering wisdom on the ultimate questions.”
As a result, “There are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most… Many feel lost or overwhelmed… I find there is an amazing hunger to shift the conversation. People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”
Here is the reason for the optimism. Brooks suggests, that “Young people, raised in today’s hypercompetitive environment, are, if anything, hungrier to find ideals that will give meaning to their activities. It’s true of people in all social classes. Everyone is born with a moral imagination- a need to feel that life is in service to some good.”
What we need, he says, is a “community of conversation”. That is what the Church should be and I have little doubt that it is what most churches will actually become, once they get the memo that the needs of the world are changing around them.
Long term, I’m optimistic. Short term is a more complicated question largely because we are living through a period of unprecedented technological change and the integration and concentration that it is having on us has deeper implications for our communal lives than any of us can actually understand as we live through it.
Our consciousness is being shaped all the time, despite the fact that we don’t really notice it day by day. If you go to my office, you will see bookshelves with books. Almost all of them have my handwritten notes in the margins. When I retire, these books will retire with me and we will store all of them in the same storage unit we now store 8 track tapes, cassette tapes, and CD’s. My great grandchildren will ask me how we used to use them with a quizzical little smile.
But it isn’t just the technology form, our consciousness is also being shaped. When I started teaching at Rutgers in the late 80’s, I noticed that my students started to drift off, even though the subject material was very engaging, and it dawned on me why.
Every 7 minutes, they were waiting for a commercial break. They’d grown up their whole lives on TV. And even though they weren’t aware, they were waiting for a commercial, their consciousness as a generation had been shaped this way. I made the discovery watching Sesame Street and I realized that even Public TV, which has no commercials, still has a commercial break. This is Terry Gross, for National Public Radio… We’ll take a short break and be back right after this.” And they cut away.
So every 7 minutes, I’d stop the didactic material and tell a story from history or something humorous and then I’d resume. Miraculously, we stayed together when we were on the same wave length.
And our consciousness has continued to be shaped by the internet, by the global scope of our communications, so that I can email someone this morning who is traveling in British Columbia, get a notice on my phone about a train derailment in Philadelphia, and have a look at a post of a relative graduating from UNC when I haven’t seen him since he was a child and didn’t even know he was enrolled at UNC. All of this connection.
We all see it on our daily commute. People connected to folks all over the world, so much so that they are practically oblivious to the poor woman gasping for breath right near them.
And our lives are busier too. We are now more connected to our family and our friends from high school, from college, from the place we lived a few years ago, so that we travel more often to see more relatives and we are invited to more things, so our calendars are jammed with more stuff farther out in time than ever.
So every time, you have to cancel a meeting because of snow, just try finding another date that your group can actually agree upon without a conflict. Good luck.
This affects our consciousness in ways that we can only guess at because we are the first generation in history to actually live through this change and it is only about 10 years old. We feel busier because we actually are busier. We feel pulled in multiple directions. We are less likely to make commitments of our time because we already have too many commitments. And we are more likely to bail on our commitments because there is less room to accommodate last minute eventualities like our spouse who suddenly just wants to veg out. Finally, we are less likely to want to go out at night because we just don’t feel like we have enough down time in our lives which we don’t.
So we prioritize our lives around our children’s schedules in particular. We have a list of activities that we want them involved in and those are key. We fit our social lives in next. And, oh yes, we have more extended family things that we are asked to attend than ever. And some get away opportunities. The Gym. Church. Community boards that we are on.
What we are becoming, our consciousness, is ever more connected and it is connected further afield. So we are curiously more anxious as well because there are more contingencies that come with this connectedness. We feel speeded up, with a fuller schedule… It is like we are close to being swamped with how much we can manage and take in.
So it is not that people don’t love their church. They do. It is not that they don’t value spirituality. They do. But we feel less and less able to commit to supporting the community, less interest in committees or in any meeting that takes us out of the home at night.
What this means for the Church over the next decade if this continues, I’m not entirely sure. But we are not going to continue doing church the old way we did because of these changing circumstances. We will probably have fewer committees, smaller committees, committees that meet only when they need to rather than monthly, more committees that meet on-line unless they really need to be face to face to deal with something difficult, and more ad hoc committees that meet for one specific purpose and then disband when the task is done.
And every meeting will have some devotional spiritual piece that allows us to connect with each other (how was your week? What are you worried about? What are you celebrating right now?), a spiritual piece that asks us questions of meaning and purpose- like David Brooks suggests.
It is a challenge to develop the community when we can’t get together as often, no question about it. But this is where we are at. We have more people reading “This Week” that I send around every week than ever, connecting in a new and different way with what is going on at the church. And more of us have conflicts with morning worship than ever, so that the turn over week to week is greater than ever.
So this next year, we’ll sponsor some discussions on how we make decisions on important matters of our life together. How do we build consensus around difficult questions like we had last year on whether or not to sell the house next door?
Our by-laws were written in a pre-internet era, so we have no explicit provisions for on-line meetings or on-line votes by committees despite the fact that we do it all of the time. But we need to be in conformity with our by-laws not just to be sticklers for procedure. But the procedures keep alive an ethos, a spirit.
Congregational churches are owner-operator affairs. We don’t have a bishop telling us what to do. The denomination doesn’t tell us what to do. We decide for ourselves. It is a great tradition as old as New England itself, when everyone would gather and debate an issue until a consensus was established and a vote was called and a motion was passed. Alexis De Tocqueville said that the Congregational churches in New England were a bedrock institution that cradled the spirit of democracy in action.
Well, how do you preserve the best of that spirit of congregational participatory democracy in an age where it is easier to connect virtually than physically? How do you take the tools of technology and use them to promote consensus? How do you design a structure that prevents a few people from using those same tools to make a putsch for power- like the activist investors in corporate business that manipulate the rules to take over?
We’ve already discussed this for over a year with MBA’s (we’ve heard from Harvard), with corporate lawyers (we’ve heard from Columbia), and we’ve already worked out a rough framework for a proposal for our leadership to consider. And we’ll need your input this year, as we fine tune a final draft for you to vote on. That will take up a good deal of our creative energy because there are no obvious answers and by-laws these days don’t last for decades. Most everyone is changing theirs every few years to adapt to a world that is changing fast enough that we have to think these things through again based on what is working and what is no longer working.
And the other big challenge will come to us, you can see by looking at the scaffolding in the back of the church that we will be doing some capital restoration projects over the course of the next year or two.
We actually had this project teed up in 2008. Indeed, Sue Buffum was the chair of the Executive Board back then. We made up these brochures to start a capital campaign in September. But the end of the month, Bear Stearns went belly up, Lehman Brother’s was cut loose,and the recession was on. It just wasn’t right to start the capital campaign.
So we sat on our hands, after I’d promised Sue that we’d re build the organ and it would be fun doing it for the year. Very disappointing…
But this year, I told the leadership of the church that we were going to embark on a capital campaign to fix a bunch of things that we either deferred or we know we want to do in the near future. Only this is not going to be a formal campaign like we did for the educational building next door. This is more personal which we can do since I’ve been here for twenty years.
So, I’ve been talking to a few families in the quiet phase and we’ve gotten a few pledges. And we’ve also gotten a few checks. The organ alone is a $300,000 restoration and I’m glad to report that we will have checks to exceed that amount this summer, so we are proceeding a pace. So Sue, better late than never, but I’m grateful that we’re starting on this under your watch.
We have a number of other upgrades, some structural work on that back balcony, flooring and carpeting in the sanctuary, sound system and video upgrade in the sanctuary, roof repairs on the education building, a new entrance to Cornerstone building that was never finished from the original construction and the like.
We are still in the quiet phase of the campaign seeking gifts from our Angel families but we’ll finish this part up shortly. And then, I want to challenge the congregation to also match part of that total, so that we can get all of these things done and have a small endowment in place for the next series of challenges that we will have, so that we aren’t in a panic.
We are leading with a few big gifts from the generation that has led for the last generation and they are giving us enough to cover most of the big items that are in front of us, so that we can all do our part to provide for the future that comes after us. Someone else gave us all of these beautiful stained glass windows and developed our sanctuary so that we just had to show up and enjoy it. We want to pass that blessing forward.
I don’t know how we are going to raise that money exactly but we’ve knocked around a few good ideas, including a fund-raising party, a kind of gala event for not only us, but also the ‘friends of Christ Church’. It should be fun.
So, I’m optimistic longer term and we have challenges on the nature of our commitment for the next few years.
Next year, we need you all to focus on questions of how we promote participatory democracy in our internet era and how we can raise money to address our capital needs.
And all of this, while our consciousness itself is being shaped and changed in a rapidly changing world.
Jesus lived in a relatively static, agrarian world. He noted, even then, that people had a difficult time discerning the ‘signs of the times’ that were right before them. But they just couldn’t see them. So he told the disciples to invoke the Holy Spirit, to open their eyes to the world around them, that the riddle of their lives might be made more discernable. And that is our challenge as well, to open ourselves to the Spirit. These days, it seems to me, that we have no real choice because the efficiency of our world is proceeding rapidly enough that as a society, we are moving fast enough that we won’t actually know it is too late until it really is too late.
“Gracious God, let Your Spirit fall upon us. Fill us with Your imagination that we might see as You see so that the speed of our rapidly changing world might come into focus and we might understand our role in it more clearly. Give us Your hope for the future we pray. Amen.