A few months ago, our Vibrant Faith Team retreated together at a lakeshore Air BnB in North Carolina. In advance, we all read Australian pastor and culture expert Mark Sayers’ new book A Non-Anxious Presence. Hiving off Edwin Friedman’s masterwork of organizational leadership, A Failure of Nerve, Sayers’ book offers a bracing view of our current moment, tied to a shift in focus for ministry leaders. Here’s a snippet-description:
“For much of recent history individuals and institutions could plan, execute, and flourish with their visions of a better world. Volatile, complex forces could be addressed and confronted with planning and management. But crisis is a great revealer. It knocks us off our thrones. It uncovers the weaknesses in our strategies and brings to light our myths and idols. Our past strategies run aground… The history of the church tells us that crisis always precedes renewal, and the framework of renewal offers us new ways forward.”
Our team spent the better part of two days exploring the book’s insights and, in tandem with dependent practices that invited the Spirit’s perspective, tried to spotlight important takeaways for Vibrant Faith and the church at large… Sayers makes the case that we’re no longer navigating on land, with solid ground under our feet. We’re more like sailors getting used to a foundation that dips and pitches and slides under our feet. In the coming weeks I’ll highlight five insights that will be focal points for our team, and perhaps for you—like guiding buoys on our ocean path. Here’s the first one…
#1 – Sayers says in times of great change—in what he calls our cultural “gray zone”—institutions “sponge up” anxiety. But the church seems to be adding to the anxiety, not siphoning it away—why? It’s clear that declining attendance, culture wars, and the lingering impact of the pandemic are squeezing church leaders right now. Anxiety is the natural fruit of a church that is…
- Losing power in the culture,
- Facing great challenges to simply survive as an institution,
- Grappling with economic realities—Sunday school and youth group are economic drivers in church budgets, and they’re facing steep declines in participation, and
- Unsure of what’s happening next–in church ministry and in every aspect of culture.
We cannot control or overcome our natural anxieties about the uncertainties and threats we’re facing. If we could, we’d be card-carrying humanists. Instead, we’re the people of God. Trust is God’s reclamation project—the thing that was lost in the fall of Adam and Eve, and the thing that God is rebuilding through our relationship with Jesus. Trust isn’t trust when there is nothing on the line. Trust matters in the middle of our anxieties. And our trusting response in the midst of our anxieties sets the tone for our entire congregation—people who are already facing massive anxieties themselves.
Jesus is on a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes (Matthew 8) when a “fierce storm” breaks out, threatening to swamp the boat. His disciples are (understandably) panicked, but Jesus is asleep in the stern. They wake him up, and His first response is: “Why are you afraid? You have so little faith!” What is the “faith” Jesus is referencing? It’s simple: Do you believe in who I am or not? As we face into our own fierce storms, we must remind ourselves of who is in the boat with us, and why He’s so relaxed in the face of our anxieties.
And we must remember Who we are pointing people to. It’s not our resources they need, they need the resources only Jesus has. Our role is to create space for the Spirit to move among them—many, many opportunities to come to know Jesus more deeply so that they can trust Him more fully. To do this, we must be present in the journey with our people. It’s not so much about our destination, but how we journey with people. We invite them into our trusting relationship with Jesus so that they can learn to trust right alongside us…