In my series on Missing Generations I wrote about some of the organisation difficulties the church is experiencing, some of which are caused by the ways different generations think about the church, abut change and about development. We tinker around the edges of change because we have an underlying lack of confidence in who we are and what the church is for.
This is a long-term problem and I’m becoming more and more convinced about what the underlying issue really is.
I think the church is suffering from collective anxiety and depression.
The Mental Health Foundation says that the signs and symptoms of depression are:
- Tiredness and loss of energy.
- Sadness that doesn’t go away.
- Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Not being able to enjoy things that are usually pleasurable or interesting.
- Feeling anxious all the time.
- Avoiding other people, sometimes even your close friends.
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
- Sleeping problems – difficulties in getting off to sleep or waking up much earlier than usual.
- Very strong feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
- Finding it hard to function at work/college/school.
- Loss of appetite.
- Loss of sex drive and/or sexual problems.
- Physical aches and pains.
- Thinking about suicide and death.
Those signs and symptoms obviously relate to individuals but they can also relate to organisations.
So, how does the church exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression?
The church engages is almost entirely in doom and gloom when it talks about itself. The word ‘decline’ dominates every conversation. We wallow in our misery. We are obsessed with how bad things are and how much things have changed for the worse.
We talk about plans to get better but we never really commit to any of them so we make more and more plans and feel worse and worse when none of them work. We have programmes and ideas and spend huge amounts of energy and money on these initiatives then spend huge amounts of energy and time telling each other why these initiatives and programmes won’t work. This is what mental health practitioners call ‘negative self talk’ and it is hugely destructive.
We feel helpless and hopeless. There’s nothing that can be done, nothing that will change how things are.
I’d venture to suggest that the URC is even thinking suicidal thoughts. We call that ‘union with other denominations’ but the terms of most unions being considered would in reality be the death of the URC as it is consumed by a larger denomination. We have started to give our stuff away and withdraw for areas of work which actually support growth (apparently someone to support and develop work with children and young people isn’t vital in some Synods).
Our feelings of a lack of self-worth and the crippling nature of our perceived financial position leads us to the kind of paralysis that those suffering from depression recognise all to well.
Can the church recover? Part of recovering from anxiety and depression is first recognising that we have a problem and seeking help.
Recovery is an interesting concept.
Living with a mental health nurse leads to all kinds of interesting conversations. The topic which seems to weave through almost every conversation we have is ‘recovery’.
We tend to think of recovery as ‘getting back to where you were before’ and I tend to think in the church that’s really what we mean when we talk about our recovery. We would like to go back to how things were in our perceived ‘golden age’ when everyone believed in God, everyone went to church and money and buildings were never a problem.
Our plans and discussions tend, however unconsciously, toward this kind of recovery. This kind of recovery is impossible, unrealistic and actually undesirable.
We will never get back to how things were because we have lived through this experience and it changes us. Things have changed so it is simply unrealistic to expect them to return to what was. Going back to some earlier time is undesirable because recovery brings resilience, a resilience that we didn’t have previously.
If getting back to how things were isn’t an option that leaves us with some questions:
How do we ‘recover’?
Who can help us recover?
What would that recovery look like?