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When I was a kid, each summer we’d pack up our station wagon, hitch a cargo trailer to the back and load it up with tents, lawn chairs, and tarps, tie the canoe to the top of the car, and head to an Ontario Provincial Park, a different one each summer. Days were spent at the beach, hiking the trails, reading at the camp site, and participating in the activities and programs at the park visitor center.
Most parks have such programs. Some were held right at the visitor center while others required a trek out to some field or pond or wooded area. They were led by a park ranger, often a conservationist, who could teach us about the wildlife, the flora and fauna, the patterns and rhythms of each ecosystem, and how we as humans were called to live in relationship with nature. The best rangers spoke with passion and delight – they loved what they did, they loved to talk about snails and brown bears and different kinds of trees, and they loved introducing kids to all these things that they loved. Which in turn made us kids lean in a bit closer, eyes wide and ears open, as we explored the wonders we were being shown.
It’s this memory of park programs and conservationists that came to mind as I read Syd Hielema’s essay, “The Church of Jesus in 2047: Life After the Decade from Hell.” Others have since responded to this essay, and there’s a lot to respond to, but I want to explore one piece in the middle of the essay.
In describing a hypothetical CRC church in Guelph, Syd describes three generations present in 2022. The oldest generation are “the builders,” those who “developed organizations, institutions, projects, and programs…animated by a ‘Christ transforming culture’ paradigm…leaning into a Reformed understanding of common grace.”
The middle generation are the protectors, who “perceived significant threats to the church and the faith” from without and within the church, and who sought to “purge the church of ungodly influences and protect its purity.”
The youngest generation Syd describes as too amorphous to be defined, made up primarily of “nones” who refuse to identify with any one faith community.
It’s clear from Syd’s essay that the protectors are a problematic generation for the church. They “legislate simple clarity upon messy realities” and assume that ‘the end justifies the means,’ furthering “the explosive growth of the disillusioned ‘nones’.”
I get what Syd’s getting at. There is certainly a contingent within the church that seems to operate from within a bounded-set framework, seeking to maintain control, fearful of a demise of the way things have been.
But I wonder if, couched somewhere in between the protectors and the nones, is another group of people that we need to consider – the deconstructionists. This group isn’t ambivalent about church like the nones are. They care deeply about their faith (and how their faith is perceived by the world). And in their passion, they see the institutional church as something that has caused hurt and pain and injustice, and so they want to deconstruct and dismantle many elements of the institutional church and rebuild her from the ground up. (Of course, we’re painting in broad swaths here, and there are nuances within all of these categories. But for the sake of continuing on from Syd’s essay, I’m over-generalizing).
If the protectors are guided by nostalgia – a romanticized version of the past – then we might say the deconstructionists are driven, at least in part, by shame, what Jamie Smith defines as “nostalgia in negative.” In his new book How to Inhabit Time, Smith talks about the shame we carry as individuals, but I think we can extrapolate to the collective as well:
“There are highly spiritualized forms of this fixation [on shame] that parade themselves as holiness. But in fact this is the antithesis to grace. Shame lives off the lie of spiritual self-improvement, which is why my past is viewed as a failure. Grace lives off the truth of God’s wonder-working mercy – my past, my story, is taken up into God and God’s story. God is writing a new chapter of my life, not starting a new book after throwing out the first draft of my prior existence…In the hands of such an artist, all my weaknesses are openings for strength, the proverbial cracks that let the light in. Even my sins and struggles hold the possibility for compassion and sympathy. Only such a God could make even my vices the soil in which he could grow virtue” (pg. 61-62).
The church has vices, no denying. We are a collection of broken people who do, and have done, broken things. There’s much room for change. But I wonder if part of the challenge the church currently faces is that on all sides we’re a little too fixated on its people. Either by over-emphasizing the importance of what people do as a way of erecting fences, or by despairing of what people have done that leads to a dismantling of not only fences, but of the building too. In both cases, at the end of the day, there’s not much particularly worth inviting people into.
So I wonder if we need to think of ourselves, not as protectors or deconstructionists, but as conservationists.
A conservationist is ultimately a protector. There are threats to environments that must be monitored and guarded against.
But conservationists also know there are seasons and rhythms in the world beyond our control. Environments change, decay, and adapt. Far from keeping things in stasis, a conservationist seeks to understand and partner with these seasons and rhythms so as to promote flourishing and new life.
And undergirding all this work is love. A love for the world and the piece of the world they inhabit and work in. Love for woods and fields and rivers and snails and brown bears. And because they love these things, they joyfully invite others into the wonder. “Come and see,” they say to the curious children. “Come and be a part of it.”
Towards the end of his essay, Syd describes the church in 2047. He describes these church-goers as creative, energized, gentle, and light of spirit. “Best of all,” he writes, “they were able to be playful. Their steadfast clinging to the sovereignty of God and the vastness of grace freed them to walk lightly amid the chaos and even death all around them.”
The sovereignty of God and the vastness of grace free us from nostalgia and nostalgia in negative. I don’t know what the next two decades will bring. But I know that whatever comes will be because God ordained it. I don’t know what the church will look like, but I know the church will continue to exist in a meaningful way because Christ is head of the Church. I don’t know how our institutions will change and evolve, but I know that God can write new chapters for them, using even past vices as “the soil in which he [can] grow virtue.”
So as we end one year and look to another, I have hope. I have hope because it ultimately isn’t about us. We are but the park rangers who point to the great mystery we are a part of. The Spirit is at work, and the invitation is extended.
“Come and see. Come and be a part of it.”