Several months ago I was walking our dog Scout on a wooded trail in Anchorage. As this trail winds through the spruce and birch, there are several sharp turns that leave the hiker blind as to what lies just around the bend. It was on one such sharp bend in the road that I looked up just in time to see the rear half of a bull moose about 8 feet in front of me. I stopped dead in my tracks and suddenly realized why Scout – usually so ambitious on this trail – had been so hesitant the last 30 feet or so. His senses were already alert to the sounds and smells of the moose I was incapable of sensing. Further, his inability to say, “Moose ahead, knucklehead!” left him with the option of applying his brakes and hoping his human would sense this sudden lack of enthusiasm as a signal of approaching crisis.
Well, we backed away and watched for a moment. Moose will move only when they’re darn good and ready. Judging by the enthusiasm with which the bull moose was tearing into the birch trees, this guy appeared to have just started his salad and was planning on staying in that spot for the main course. Due to the narrow trail, just skirting around the backside of the moose was not an option. So, not wanting to further alarm Scout (or myself), I said, “Well Scout, here’s an opportunity to explore these woods!” So off through the undergrowth we went, making a large semi-circular detour around the moose.
For some reason, the memory of this fairly common Alaskan event has been churning in my heart and mind for the past several days. The notion of being lost in thoughts and whatever is in your earbuds almost causing a collision with the business end of a 2,000 pound kicking machine; the idea that there are some around us who sense a crisis but whose signals we ignore; the reality that crisis in one path is an opportunity to create/explore another…these are all speaking to me as one who is leading a church in today’s culture.
Nearly every denomination – as well as many, many congregations – are facing a krisis – the Greek word meaning “moment of decision,” from which we get our word crisis. What makes a crisis a crisis is the fact that we must make a decision. During a financial crisis, we must decide what gets funded and what we eliminate. During a political crisis, people must choose whom to follow, or, at the very least, which form of political fallout is most preferable. I wonder if the crisis the church has encountered is more than the financial or political crises usually described by denominational judicatories. I wonder if it isn’t, first and foremost, a spiritual crisis.
I’ll just speak for my own tribe (to use Leonard Sweet’s term for denomination): United Methodism. We have been walking blithely and blindly along the same path for decades. Our earbuds have been blaring traditional hymns and annual reruns of debates we’ve endured for more than 30 years. And now, without so much as a warning, the trail seems to have taken a sharp turn and the 2000 pound moose in the way presents itself in the form of financial and political crises, a postmodern culture whose language we seem to be able to understand or speak, and a population whose collective opinion of church institutions and their leadership is just above that of politicians.
Sadly, the ‘Scouts’ of the world have been trying to get our attention for awhile shouting, “Spiritual moose ahead, knucklehead!” But, continuing our walk and pace have over-ridden both our willingness and ability to pay attention to their ‘braking’ behaviors. Whatever hesitation unchurched individuals in our communities have toward our institutional churches must express more about their spirituality than ours has been our theory of operation.
Folks, it’s time to see the opportunity to create new trails. They will not look or feel like the ones on which we’ve been walking for so long. We will be clearing some brush and dealing with the prickly spines of devil’s club. Some of these trails are already being blazed: micro-churches, online ministries, monastic movements, entrepreneurial ministries… Or, we could just stand and look at the back end of that moose, I guess.