After 40 years of service to the faith community, Alban Institute is closing its doors. Various aspects of its work (consulting, publishing, educational, etc.) are being spun off to differing entities. Alban itself will no longer exist. In their announcement they recognize that the religious landscape has dramatically changed in the past 40 years. Much of the work they have sought to do for the benefit of the faith community has taken root in many differing ways. So they have served their purpose, and those resources will continue in new forms and delivery systems.
As one who utilized the resources of Alban periodically, I am both glad I had the opportunity to be resourced by them, and I am sad that this era is coming to an end. Yet I should not be surprised for two reasons — this is the season of Lent in which we focus on that part of the Christian message that chronicles the conclusion (a painful one at that) of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and Loren Mead (a principal facilitator/writer for Alban) anticipated this phenomenon in his book The Once and Future Church.
Mead wrote in chapter 3 about the church using the analogy of tectonic plates upon which the continents sit on earth. They are not fixed, and there is immense pressure as they move and shift. Sometimes that pressure is relieved by an earthquake. It is not a preventable condition, but rather one that must be acknowledged and to which we adapt (either by building structures that can withstand the shifts, or by moving away from fault lines). So it is with our understanding of the church. We employ paradigms (such as tectonic plates) to understand it, to perceive the reality before us. Some things happen that we cannot prevent. We must learn how to adapt.
The paradigm of the Apostolic Age saw the powers and dominions as enemies, whereas the paradigm of the Christendom Age saw them as allies, advancing the cause of Christ. We are in that transitional time (some have labeled “post-Christendom”) when secular powers can be allies, but are not necessarily always allies. We must discern in each case whether or not the cause of Christ is being advanced.
As we leave one age of the church and are entering another, Mead writes, it is not unlike the “death and dying” process that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined years ago. There is much denial functioning in congregations that refuse to admit anything has changed. Then there is depression. With a lack of energy, a listless lack of imagination sets in. There is a sense of the depth of the problem, but no capacity to respond positively. If churches continue at all, it is only to survive, not make a difference. Bargaining happens when we believe a new program will fix the problem. This program will take us back to the “good old days.” When this does not, work anger sets in. This is the realization that what we thought we had is being lost. The focus of the anger is not entirely on the issue, but more principally on the loss. It leads to all sorts of uncivil behavior and actions. This anger divides a sense of community just at the time that such a sense of community is vitally important for the health of moving toward something new.
As Christians, we of all people ought to be ready to healthily embrace the death of the old in order for a resurrection of the new to come forth. These do not happen separate from one another. In order for resurrection to occur, there must be death. That is at the heart of the Christian message. That is at the heart of the joy that despairing disciples were able to embrace only days after the most devastating event in their lives. Are we open to similar possibilities both in this particular season of Lent as well as in the life of the church that is before us in this moment in history?