A New Narrative, Please

Martin B. Copenhaver

The poet Wallace Stevens once observed that we do not live in a place as much as we live in a description of a place.

If Stevens is right, and I think he is, how would we describe where we are living now in the life of the church and of theological education?

Clearly, the dominant description these days is the narrative of decline. According to this narrative, the lead story is that the mainline church is experiencing a decline in the number of members and a corresponding decline in dollars to support its mission. In a related trend, there is a steep decline in enrollment in mainline seminaries, which has caused severe economic shortages in those settings, as well.

I am all-too familiar with these trends, of course. I do not deny the trends, nor do I indulge in Pollyannish attempts to dismiss them. I can quote dolesome statistics with the best of them.

My problem with the narrative of decline, however, is that it is an insufficient description of what is happening. So it is not the place where I choose to live.

First of all, the narrative of decline is boring. After a few tellings, we tune it out. We have heard it all before and nothing new is illumined in the retelling. Eventually we become inured to what we are hearing, or simply look for a way to change the subject.

Second, it is not a faithful narrative. To tell the story of our time as one of decline is to walk away from our inheritance as Easter people. God is not dead, and neither are God’s promises. That means that, for people of faith, the narrative of decline is not an accurate description of reality.

Third, the narrative of decline does not draw the best from us. It prompts a response that is fearful and despairing. It invites retrenchment and paralysis. Then too, once we adopt such a narrative, the blame-games begin: Who let this happen? Or, at the very least, who should have noticed it was happening? And why didn’t someone do something?

In contrast to these questions, I would suggest a single question that can help shape an alternative narrative. That question is this: What is God up to in our time?

The narrative that is shaped by this question is not boring, because God is not boring. It is a faithful question in that it assumes that God is alive and active in the world. For anyone who believes in the God of Easter, the God who gets the last word, this is a truthful narrative. Our job is not to answer for the decline in the church. Rather, our job is to figure out what God is up to and to get with the program.

The story of a God who is up to something in our time is alluring because, instead of inviting blame, it invokes imagination.

So I am done with the narrative of decline. I am running for the daylight. I want to live on this side of Easter. I will devote my energies responding to the evocative and inspiring question: What is God up to in our time and what are we to do in response?