BY THE REV. CARA SCRIVEN | TACOMA DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENT
According to the Mayo Clinic, asthma is “a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath”. For some, asthma is a minor problem but for many people, and even relatively healthy people like myself, this condition can be a life threatening issue.
When a person with asthma has an attack, the ability to breath becomes quite difficult rather quickly. It doesn’t take me long to recognize an attack in the making. First, my breathing becomes difficult so I begin to hunch over in an attempt to gain more air into my lungs. Then when my breathing is more labored, I begin to cough and wheeze. Before long, I find myself getting more anxious and my breath shorter and more shallow. This in turn makes me more anxious, creating in the end, a vicious cycle which often makes a mild attack much worse.
For some time now, so many of our mainline churches have been experiencing something akin to an asthma attack. As the church began to decline in membership, our collective breathing became more difficult. In an attempt to draw more air into our lungs, we have tried all sorts of things: new worship services, outreach events, projection screens, trainings, small groups, church plants, etc. After each new attempt, we discovered that the metrics we expected to increase, did not. And each failed exercise ratcheted up our anxiety making it more difficult to make healthy decisions about our future.
None of the practices I mentioned are bad things. In fact, our collective negligence in doing them likely precipitated our metaphorical asthma attack. The problem arises when we engage in the spiritual and physical work of the church from a state of desperation; as our shallow breathing limits the risks we might take to live out our understanding of the Gospel and our anxiety undermines the spirit through which we take them.
When I experience an asthma attack, the best thing for me to do is to take several slow deep breathes. To do this, I must stay focused on my breathing; I accomplish this by counting. I take a deep breath in for two counts and then I exhale for two counts. This practice does not prevent my asthma attack but remembering to breathe gives me the necessary time to allow my body to recover, often with the help of an inhaler.
A similar process could be used within the church. As we continue to experience decline, perhaps if we pause, take a deep breath, and focus on the essential task of listening to the Spirit we will reduce the anxiety we feel. This of course will not stop the decline, however, it may help us discern the best way for the church to join God in the next new thing God is doing in our world.