We are truly living in a liminal time in the life of the church. The peculiar period in which we find ourselves probably started in the 1960’s. The decline in worship attendance that began in the 1970’s caused some hand wringing. However, the emergence of the megachurches in the late 70’s and moving forward gave the illusion that Christianity was thriving. While the megachurches were flourishing, other churches were closing daily at the rate of 4,000 a year according to US Census Bureau.
Liminal time is about leaving the familiar, the comfortable, the easy and entering the unknown. Any liminal time leaves people grieving, sad, afraid, and maybe even angry. A glance around the church will reveal all these emotions rising to the surface. The danger of these emotions is they can easily lead to despair which leads to giving up on the church, hence the increase of the “nones.” Your local congregation and the congregation’s standing in the community may not be what it once was and like any loss people need to grieve.
Leaving the familiar and the comfortable for the unknown is frightening, but with the right attitude it can be even more exciting. Over many decades now we haven’t changed how we do church. We’ve put a fresh coat of paint on some tired programs and events, but there has been little change in how we do church. The exciting part about liminal time is you have the opportunity to take an adventure filled with risk and danger, but at the same time has the potential for endless possibilities. Seeing those possibilities become reality is very hard work.
Hard work and exhausting work is not the same. Clergy and laity have in recent decades been doing exhausting work. They have been busy putting in a lot of hours, but it isn’t hard work. It isn’t hard work because we know how to write sermons, teach bible studies, visit hospitals, do funerals and weddings, do VBS, have potlucks, do mission projects, etc.; exhausting but not hard.
The hard part is when we are experimenting with new types of ministries that have not been done before. The hard work is attempting something when you don’t know what the outcome will be; the willingness to risk failure. I’m talking about more than adding drums to the worship service. Successfully emerging on the other side of this liminal time will require a completely different attitude, a different approach to engaging people, different definition of success, and a different way of doing ministry.
What does all the differences look like, you ask. I don’t know, if I knew we would already be well past the liminal time. What I do know is we can’t recreate an era gone by. What I do know is we could be heading into one of the most exciting times in the history of the Church and even in The United Methodist Church. We have the opportunity to create something new if we have the courage and are willing to work hard. Liminal time can be EXCITING!!