Although we church folks seldom consider it, we are a people on an amazing journey. Like Abram and so many other biblical ancestors who followed the Spirit’s leading to a new place of promise and hope, each of us is traveling a path God has set before us. Like any journey, our path includes twists and turns, high roads and low places that we must learn to navigate.
Most people prefer to have a clear idea of where we are going and how we will get there. When planning a trip, some folks turn to maps, while others look to a GPS to guide them. But few of us have the time (or patience!) simply to head out, twisting and turning in circles, never certain where we are or how to get to our next destination. In our instant, want-it-now American culture, we usually seek the quickest and most direct path.
Congregational life is no different. When you decide to join a community, your faith journey takes another turn. You are no longer traveling alone; you have united your individual journey with the journeys of others. Your life will begin to change as you travel with others, even if you assumed your pathway would remain exactly what it was when you climbed onboard.
Most of us join churches that seem to have a clear direction, only to discover sooner or later that the roads we travel by faith rarely are smooth. Every congregation faces times in their life together when a blind turn or unexpected shift takes them down a different road. Suddenly, the church finds itself in an unfamiliar and uncertain place. You try to make sense of your surroundings, to figure out where to go from here. Going back is not an option, but it’s not easy deciding where to turn next. This twist in your journey calls your congregation out of its ordinary routine. You have entered an in-between time, a space in which things may no longer feel familiar and comfortable. Naturally, this in-between time brings with it more than a bit of anxiety.
If your community of faith is in the midst of one of those in-between times right now, have no fear. Rather than living in anxiety, this can be for you a time to celebrate—because you have entered a phase that is expectant with grace. This in-between time can become a sacred space for discovering new life-giving possibilities for your congregation.
As communities of faith called by God, perhaps the most fitting biblical narrative of in-between times is the one whose primary character remains ever linked with the One Big Story. When we listen in on God’s call to Abram (Genesis 12ff.), we may be surprised to discover how much is involved in responding to God’s call—even before the journey begins.
First of all, Abram needed to be able to listen for God. This is no easy task for people of God today. Most of us are bombarded with noisy voices. Everybody wants something from us—our children, our parents, our friends, our bosses, our churches. Media voices speak persuasively, selling us whatever they want us to buy or believe. If we are honest with ourselves, we might become aware that we begin to listen to another’s voice only when we need help. In that moment, we hope the voice we hear is trustworthy.
Trust may not seem all that important when your congregation is coasting along, doing what feels comfy and familiar. Not until the road shifts, and the twists and turns cause us to make new choices, do we begin to wonder about which direction is right. Not until we tire of driving on the same familiar roundabout do we think of asking for directions.
When things are rocking along as usual, it’s easy to forget that we are not just another group of people who happen to get together on Sundays. We are a people called by God—and God has a purpose for us. Eugene Peterson, a pastor and respected writer, once said, “The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is . . . to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate in it.”
Think about the profound spiritual opportunity that transition offers. Biblical stories remind us that the people of God are a people on a journey often living through in-between times. When they failed to create sacred time and space, our biblical ancestors found it difficult to focus on God’s leading, God’s providing, and God’s calling them to a specific purpose in that specific moment. Just as God calls each believer into a life of love and witness, so too does God call each congregation. That call might express itself a certain way for years; but eventually the circumstances that gave rise to a particular church will change. This community of faith may find itself wondering how to get back to the “good ol’ days.” But God’s invitation to congregations facing these in-between times is more challenging—yet also more faith-filled. God invites congregations to imagine how their own past might influence God’s call today and into the future.
The busyness of our lives as both individuals and as communities of faith pushes us outward, rarely giving us room to stop and listen. In-between times invite churches to create sacred space where we can discover and rediscover God’s call. As you begin to envision divinely inspired possibilities, your church will begin to realize the blessings of leaning into in-between times.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-between Times by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr., copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Alban’s End of Summer Sale ends October 2. Buy now for deep discounts on dozens of Alban books in areas vital to congregational life!
Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times
by Beverly A. Thompson and George B. Thompson, Jr.
Every community of faith journeys through periods of transition. In Grace for the Journey: Practices and Possibilities for In-Between Times, authors Beverly Thompson and George Thompson invite congregations to open themselves to the grace-filled possibilities that accompany these in-between periods. Drawing on biblical examples and contemporary experience, the authors invite the community of faith to see transitional times as an opportunity to develop deeper spiritual awareness of God’s call on its communal life—a call that open up fresh potential even as it calls us to consider what familiar things may need to change.
Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality, and the Future
by George B. Thompson, Jr.
Many congregations today exist in the “middle of anywhere,” living comfortably with the surrounding culture and focusing their energies on serving the needs of members. These congregations have many strengths and gifts that they can exercise without changing a thing. But Thompson envisions a deeper, more prophetic call for congregations: a church on the “edge of somewhere,” one that is deeply engaged in ministering to the community while calling on others to commit to doing the same.
Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change
by Mark Lau Branson
Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of appreciative inquiry to the lives of congregations. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.
Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All
by Landon Whitsitt
In Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, Landon Whitsitt argues that Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone can see and edit, might be the most instructive model available to help congregations develop leaders and structures that can meet the challenges presented by our changing world. Its success depends, he demonstrates, not on the views of select experts but on the collective wisdom of crowds.
Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Much has been written about the changing landscape the church finds itself in and even more about the church’s waning influence in our culture. From her vantage point as an under-40 pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, author of Tribal Church, moves away from the handwringing toward a discovery of what ministry in, with, and by a new generation might look like.
Wikipedia, Open Source Software:
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Join Alban author Landon Whitsitt (Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All) for insight into the thinking and behavior of those young adults you wish were part of your congregation.
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