Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible. – N.T. Wright

…faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. – Hebrews 11.1

In the short article, The Mood of Our Moment: Grief and Trauma I sought to describe what is happening among us at this moment. Several responded by sharing links and making comments that recognize the extent to which intensifying forces are upending so many of our taken-for-granted practices, identities and securities. A couple of those links are listed below.1

Confronting this kind of grief and trauma can be overwhelming. What we need right now is hope; but, hope is hard to see or imagine when we feel trapped inside an all encompassing, pervasive story that doesn’t seem to let in any light. In the unraveling of the modern story, many voices are saying that we need a new story. This is precisely where churches ought to be focusing their attention, because we have that story. Instead, our church systems are more like ancient dinosaurs foraging for survival in an environment that no longer supports their existence. Hope is being convinced there is another story that points to a radically different world.

Some of you raised questions in response to what I wrote: What, then, do we do in this trauma and grief that possess us? How and where can we see God at work? It’s becoming clearer and clearer to many of us that we’re not going to engage this crisis in our usual ways. We cannot respond with a series of steps to be taken, or new techniques and new models. This trauma is not amenable to methods like becoming agile, adaptive or innovative. These are band-aids on the gaping tear to our common soul. Like drugs that give a quick rush of hope, they undermine the basis for real hope. Before questions of strategy, we must see that our grief and trauma are about the failed story in which we live and a poverty of soul that can no longer imagine any other story. 2

The grief and trauma express the fact that the stories we’ve let shape us (even as Christians) are about transactional tactics that have prayer as an addendum – an “amen” that gestures to God while we pursue our own agency. The trauma of our moment is that this story has betrayed us and we are without alternatives. Working harder at innovation isn’t going to raise the dead.

Our vocation in this unnamable moment is the writing of a new chapter. Ensnared in a bankrupt story, our vocation is to name, and live into, the story which must replace it. Without this we will continue to be tossed by the winds and proposals of change methods and how-tos. We do need to take action. But that is not the need of this moment. The stories we choose to live in enable us to make sense of the world being shaped in front of us which, in turn, points to the kind of actions we need to take. The story we chose, modernity’s wager, is convinced that with enough data and the right technique we can control the outcomes we want. It is strange in the extreme that a century after Barth’s massive “nein” we still live and lead inside that same “nein”.

Simply and briefly, we need to re-enter the story that starts in the confession that this is God’s world. We are not the primary agents and we are, definitely, not in control. Right now, right where you live as you read this, in the midst of this great unraveling, God is acting and calling creation toward a doxological remaking. This remaking took form in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, in the pouring out of the Spirit into the world and through the church. The fundamental questions we need to be asking as leaders of God’s people are not how we can fix the church or make it work again. The questions that will make us a people of hope are radically different: “What is God doing ahead of us in our communities for the healing of this mess we have produced?” “How will we join with what God is doing in our local communities?” This is how we will discern again the common good we have pointed to in The Plague and the Parish and Renewing the Covenant letters.

Covid is but the tip of the iceberg. It is pulling back the curtain on the extent to which our politics, markets, and institutions have brought us to a place of social, economic, civic and environmental devastation. It is a terrible moment in human history and the life of the planet. It has all come through a very brief moment in history that began with the industrial age and its spreading colonizations. The need to write a radically new story is urgent. It will not come from the elites, the professionals or the experts. It is not borne on the wings of some new method and it has little to do with how clergy manage Covid in their congregations. The crises before us are too terrible for these feeble responses. God’s people in the West are being called to sacrificially embrace a hope that is more than and different from the politics of left or right, the illusion that a vaccine will make all things new, or that the latest techniques from change theorists will make it alright again.

Any form of Christian hope begins in the conviction that God is at work in the midst of our terrible situation already making all things new. Hope is rooted in reclaiming our vocation of discerning what God is doing and joining with the Spirit beyond ourselves and the saving of our churches. In my next piece I want to address the question of how we do this together.


Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

  1. George Monbiot: The New Political Story that Could Change Everything? and David Brooks: America is Having a Moral Convulsion
  2. I wrote extensively about this story in terms of modernity’s wager in our book Practices for the Remaking of God’s People (Roxburgh/Robinson, 2018). It’s contours are summarized in The Plague and the Parish as well as in Renewing the Covenant.

One Comment

  • Alan, thanks for these helpful thoughts.

    One way in which I am experiencing, and navigating, the unraveling is watching my denomination exhibit extreme levels of anxiety. The normal denominational tensions we are experiencing in this era (less funding available, central bureaucracy trying to do more with less despite being filled with mid-level managers who were never trained to handle the old world they lived in let alone a new one, and partisan groupings warring against each other) have been rapidly accelerated by this trauma.
    Everyone is anxious and acting as if the shifts we are going through will in fact bring pending doom. I have heard repeated pronouncements, from different camps, that our denomination is dead or dying because…. (insert anxiety or tension here). So, what would be helpful, especially as you so helpfully unpack our Euro-Tribal denominations and name the story of hope, is to point us to ways we can operate out of hope. This would be especially helpful for those of us living on the frontlines in local churches.

    How can we inhabit hope in a way that adds to the peace, rather than the anxiety of our denominational conversations? What does it look like to be a non-anxious presence in the unraveling of denominations?

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