Tragedy haunts headlines. Another week brings another shooting. Political dysfunctions and chaos spread across the globe. Often, closer to home, we deal with the quieter but deadly realities of epidemic drug use, the rise of suicide and a youth culture that is saturated with anxiety. All of these are present as congregations seek to bear witness to the way of Jesus.
With so much craziness in the air, what are leaders to do? Hand-wringing, railing at the dominant forces in society or trying to retreat to some happier or simpler time in the past do not serve the people of God or God’s mission in the world. May I make a few suggestions?
- Remember that Christian faith and life have often survived and even flourished in troubled times. Yes, the world has changed and Christian values may be less evident now. In the present darker and more violent world, we may believe that Christianity has lost its power and that our task is to respond with force, like Peter with his sword in Gethsemane. But no. History reminds us that Christianity survives quite well in a world of pluralism and competing values. What leaders must do is to remember that the church’s job is not to triumph over other forces; rather, the church bears witness to a way of life characterized by radical love and care for all people. We find our way forward by practicing what we preach.
- Remember that hope is the antidote to anxiety. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Anxiety and fear are like a highly contagious virus that can rapidly infect persons, families, congregations and communities. Anxiety can overcome us when shocking things occur or when we experience threat or loss. Anxiety can quickly shut down our capacity to reason or to act – paralysis sets in. When it does, we lose our capacity, as individuals or congregations, to act with love or compassion. The work of leaders within congregations is to manage anxiety. I say “manage” because anxiety is inevitably present, but we counter anxiety with a healthy dose of hope.
- Remember that hope does not disappoint us. To speak of hope is not to think that wishful thinking will get us out of the mess. Rather, to speak of hope is to act as if God is doing restorative work in the world – even when we can see evidence to the contrary. Hope is anchored in God’s being and doing. Since God is love and is ushering in God’s reign, we are called to act and live as if love matters and God’s kingdom values matter. Life certainly will have disappointments, and some of us may not see or experience all of what we long for, but communities of faith who place their hope in God’s work will find a future.
- Remember that hope fuels action. The issues that make our times turbulent – broken families, disturbed and violent shooters, ideological extremists, lonely youths and drug and alcohol abuse – call for action. But that action is not about marching to the state house; we are called to practice concrete forms of care. How do we walk with families in crisis? How do we pass along the faith to a new generation? How do we commit to new forms of community, worship and ministry that sustain the church’s life in light of the altered world we now inhabit? Our hope in God evokes action that drives the church to be the church more fully. For many of us, church is something we do with some part of our lives. We have been able to do this because the other parts of our lives have been, or at least have felt, Christian. But that day is passing away. Now we are finding that our communities, our schools, our public spaces, our media and even our own homes have taken on the dark specter of troubling and even demonic forces. Such a world requires us to live more intentionally as God’s people. God-centered worship, formative discipleship, compassionate ministry, radical hospitality and committed community are necessary points of action for the people of God.
Living in turbulent times is not easy. We can be tempted to throw up our hands in despair. Or, we can remember that when we were baptized into Jesus Christ we were baptized into his death so we can walk in his life. His death and life were marked by the wrestling of a troubled world. We actually signed up for this! So may God’s grace and mercy be with us as we seek to offer stability and direction in the congregations and communities we serve.
Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.