St Simons Island Lighthouse by Kathryn MeyerLast week, I shared with you that I attended the Mercer Preaching Consultation at St. Simons. This week I would like to share with you some of what I learned at the consultation.

I learned a great deal from other pastors who made presentations as they related some of their challenges and approaches to preaching. It’s always beneficial to see how others approach a task and comforting to know that others struggle with the same challenges you do.

The main speaker was Diana Butler Bass, an author and lecturer who focuses on the culture of American religion. I introduced you to her last week. One of the ideas she presented to us was that the church has gone through three Great Awakenings since the early 18th century. The first occurred in the period of the mid 1700’s when the focus shifted from European state churches to Evangelical Calvinism. The second occurred in the early 1800’s when Calvinist Revivalism shifted to Protestant Benevolence. The third occurred in the 1890 to 1930 era when the Protestant Nation gave way to Liberal Imperialism (she noted that both “liberal” and “imperialism” were considered good and positive terms by most folks in those days).

Some suggest that a fourth Great Awakening began around the 1960’s. By now you may have noted that these religious shifts seem to coincide with cultural and political transitions. Dr. Bass pointed out that there is a difference between revivalism and awakenings. Revivalism focuses on salvation for individuals and awakenings bring culture shifts which change the values and practices of a whole people.

During each of the awakenings the church underwent dramatic change. The common pattern in each awakening began with crisis, a general sense among a great number of people that something is wrong. Nothing makes sense anymore. Nothing looks the same. Some respond to this by drifting away from church and other institutions of society and others respond in destructive ways (violence, divorce, increased prison populations, etc.).

Crisis is followed by cultural distortion. People begin to realize the problems are not personal but, rather, the result of institutional failure. This leads to a great deal of argument, but little consensus on how to respond. Sometimes this then leads to nativism, the idea that the problem is that we have not been faithful to our ancestors and, if we can just go back, everything will be OK. Of course we can’t turn back time. Things change. God’s creation is not static. Rather than accepting that, our tendency is to blame some group. “They” are standing in the way. “They” have, at various times been Jews, African Americans, Irish-Catholics, and Gays and Lesbians. This creates huge divides in church and society.

Eventually a new vision begins to take shape. Gradually we accept that we cannot go back to what was. We develop a clearer understanding of the crisis and its cause and open ourselves to new possibilities. We find new ways to embrace and embody our core values. Over time, fears subside. We embrace a leadership model that bridges failure with a new sense of hope.

Once people begin to grasp what is taking place, they begin to reorder their orientation. This produces a great emotional response to change. We no longer demonize groups of people who had become our scapegoats. We realize “they” are not so different and that we can share friendship with people of different races and orientations. We agree about a new vision, even if we can’t agree about how we should implement that vision.

Finally, we experience transformation. Institutions are reformed. While our core values tend to remain the same, we see them in different ways and we find new ways to live those values. We do not abandon our values, but we do find ways to reinterpret them; ways that help us to make sense of the changing world in which we live.

Next week I want to share with you some observations that really stuck with me. For now, I think this is enough food for thought.