My son and I went on a mini bike trip this summer. We pedalled about 250 km from Saskatoon to Moose Jaw over three days. It was a fun little summertime adventure. Over those three days, I really learned to respect the wind and the way it can affect life on a bike. On day one, with the wind slightly at our backs, we managed to do 110 km and averaged speeds in the high 20s and low 30s. On day two, the wind blew across us and we made it about 80 km and averaged speeds in the high teens and low 20s. On the third day, we faced headwinds that gusted to up to 60km/hr. We travelled only 70 km and struggled to keep our speed in the double digits. Day three was gruelling, exhausting, and honestly one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. The temptation to quit was ever-present.
It’s no secret that the church in Canada is currently facing some strong social headwinds. The bottom is dropping out of our collective speedometer. We are expending tons of energy for only half the expected results. What’s going on?
To put it rather bluntly, Canada has changed and the church is struggling to deal with it. Political and social conditions in the western world have been a wind at our backs for centuries. During that time we got used to operating from a centred and privileged position in society. We shaped public policy and education. Social institutions looked to us for guidance. For all intents and purposes, to be a good Canadian was synonymous with being a good Christian. Canadians practically rolled downhill and through the front doors of our churches. It’s hard not to get used to an arrangement like that. Which is all fine and good, provided the winds don’t change.
Here are a couple of tips, from a prairie-wind-warrior, to keep your wheels turning:
- Stop fixating on your speedometer. In a headwind, your numbers can be depressing. Weirdly, headwinds tend to also make you fixated on them. Logically cyclists know that headwinds affect speed. Double the wind speed means quadruple the drag. Logically cyclists know that the speedometer doesn’t tell the whole story of effort. As a cyclist, you know all of this but sometimes you can’t help staring and despairing at what your speedometer is telling you. We know this truth all too well in the church too. It’s hardly controversial in church circles to say that Sunday morning worship attendance isn’t the final word on “health and growth.” We know attendance numbers don’t tell the whole story. We know that it’s easier to grow by attracting other Christians than it is to grow by making new ones. We know all of this but haven’t found a way to stop fixating on attendance. Fixation can lead to depression and hopelessness. Fixation distracts from the issues of ineffective evangelism, discipleship, and community engagement. Fixation can cause premature shutdowns of church plants because they aren’t “successful” fast enough. Fixation kills.
- Start celebrating forward motion. Stop looking at numbers and start looking at your environment. Learn to see the signs of progress around you. Celebrate that your tires are still turning, celebrate that you are still eating up the road, and celebrate that you haven’t given up yet. This is also true in the church. If we are going to survive the Great Canadian Headwind we need to be willing to do the hard work of finding new ways to measure progress. If we want to give ourselves space relearn how to speak truths and live lives that are intelligible, credible, and authoritative in the Canada mission field we may need to be willing to take a numbers hit.
- The principle of your butt, legs, and resolve. The main resources a rider has to spend when fighting a headwind are their butt, legs, and resolve. Your butt determines how long you can ride. Your legs determine how fast you go. Your resolve determines whether or not you’ll finish. You need to spend these resources wisely and in a balanced way. Push your legs too far and you will burn yourself out and wind up in the saddle longer. Spend too little energy and your sore butt will end your ride. Fail to manage your resolve and you will quit too early. The church faces a similar challenge. Our resources of time, money, assets, people, energy, hope, and focus need to be spent on the things that matter. These resources are interrelated and exhaustible. I have watched church plants close with more people, money and assets than they started with. All because they exhausted their energy, hope, and focus. Even in fair weather managing your resources matters. When you add in a headwind, the task becomes existentially vital.
- If you can’t ride in the wind you can’t ride on the prairies. I had to remind myself of this constantly. It can be easy to get mad at your environment. I did. I got mad at the wind. I got mad that I chose riding days with the wind coming from the “wrong” direction. I got mad at trucks as they added drag and instability to an already tough ride. Getting mad at the world didn’t help me go faster. It only sapped my energy. The truth is wind comes with cycling on the prairies. If you can’t take the wind then you can’t ride out here. Managing anger and disappointment can be a struggle for churches too. Churches spend needless energy getting mad at the world. We get mad at politicians. We get mad at our culture. We get mad at the internet, or hockey schedules, or shift work economies, or summer vacations, etc… It’s easy to fall prey to “name it and blame it” theology and thinking. The simple reality is getting mad doesn’t change anything. It only saps our energy. If we nurture the belief that we can only be the church in fair weather, then we may find we can’t be the church at all.
Why are things so tough for the church right now? It is because we have built our expectations, our systems, and our thinking around a world where the wind is at our backs? Is it because we aren’t used to riding into the wind? The good news is that this is nothing new for the global church. Lots of us over the centuries know how to keep moving forward when social, cultural, and political winds are against us. Lots of us, despite the wind coming from the wrong direction, are still willing to get on our bikes and ride.
Will you join us?