Last week I had the privilege of attending a workshop lead by Diana Butler Bass, a teacher and speaker who puts American Christianity in historical and cultural context. She offered us a paradigmn in which to understand the challenges the church is now facing.
A crisis of legitimacy is what she called this stage of development. This stage is characterized by widespread failure of the systems that were put in place in the previous generations. In the case of the church, the denominational structures that were created following the third great awakening are now struggling to be effective and relevant.
We feel this pain acutely in the dwindling numbers of people who attend church services, Sunday school and youth groups. Our population is aging, with few young people there to take up the work of existing church programs. Many people appropriately grieve for the time when things were thriving. Those times, at least in the form we once knew them, are not to return.
This darkness and grief is not where this story ends. Butler Bass described how people in these stages of change begin to see new shining lights, a new vision of what church could be and then act upon it. After some time, the numbers of people who “get it” will grow. A new thing then emerges.
Sounds a lot like the story of Advent, right? It was in a dark time, a time when the Israelites were living under the rule of another occupying force, that a young woman named Mary became pregnant, bearing the incarnated light of God into the world.
She sings, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise made to our ancestors and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1: 50-55, NRSV)
Mary’s Magnificat praises God’s faithfulness to ALL generations. No matter how cast aside they might have felt in their present situation, God was making good on God’s promises in the child she was carrying in her womb. This child would show us a new way, a time in which the powerless and the poor would claim their rightful place in the kingdom.
In this season of the growing light, look for the signs of God’s promise to THIS generation. Take a look around you, see the places and people who are bearing the light of Christ in NEW ways and allow yourself to believe that all things are possible with God.