Click here for General Assembly coverage

Information fatigue

In a world with seemingly unlimited books on church decline and innovation, what are pastors to do?

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

My clergy meet-up group has a problem. We can’t choose our next book to study. For months, we’ve been posting links to new books in our group chat. When one of us sees a book on church innovation/church renewal/church decline, we send a recommendation. Then we comment, one after the other: “That looks interesting,” “That’s on my to-read stack,” “Putting it in my cart now,” “Adding it to our list.” This happens two to ten times a week. It’s been months, and we haven’t made a decision. What do we need most in these troubled times? We still aren’t sure. So instead, it’s become a running joke. At every new book, we tease: “I added it to our list of books we’ll all buy but won’t read!”

We’re suffering from what I like to call information fatigue.

My clergy group is made of up pastors in small(ish) churches in our presbytery. While our congregations face different challenges, our struggles are like most mainline churches. In this post-COVID era, we are asking: How can we do church differently? How can we innovate? How can we inspire transformation? What can we do with limited resources? How can we use the upheaval of COVID as an opportunity for change? How can we serve dwindling congregations? How can we be the church of Jesus Christ in a time of decline?

Currently, publishers are producing many beautifully written books, each claiming to hold the answers we seek. Books with good analysis and research. Articles with anecdotes and success stories.

Yet, as we serve churches on the ground, sorting through all the initiatives, data, and analysis can be too much to bear, too exhausting to take in, too overwhelming to sort through. What in these words might work for my church, we ask? How does this relate to my context? How could we do something so innovative here? How could we possibly do one more new thing when the new thing keeps changing?

Perhaps we also have innovation fatigue.

The abundance of literature holding the secrets pastors need to thrive reminds me of my earliest days as a mother. When my oldest (now 6) was born, I was the recipient of a lot of advice … and a lot of book recommendations. If you want your child to sleep, follow this one method, a parent would say. Then another parent would recommend a different method. And another parent, another method. I read them all. It left me completely overwhelmed and terrified.

If I didn’t follow these methods, would my baby never sleep or eat or walk or progress along the developmental markers needed to produce a good quality human being? Yet, how could you know what the right method was, since all the books proposed something different?

That understanding brought my first sigh of relief as a parent. All the conflicting advice must mean no one has it all figured out. Every child is different. Every parent is different. The methods that worked for my neighbor won’t necessarily work for me. In fact, the methods that worked for my first child did not work for my second. Instead, my spouse and I learned to trust our instincts and care for our children in ways that worked for us, despite what the guidebooks instructed. Six years in, we’re still making it up as we go.

This is also what I’ve learned in 15 years of ministry: no one has it all figured out.

This is also what I’ve learned in 15 years of ministry: no one has it all figured out. Every church is different. Every pastor is different. The methods that worked in my first call won’t necessarily work in my second. The methods that worked in a renewal initiative in a neighboring church won’t necessarily work in my context.

In truth, we must learn to trust our instincts and care for our churches in ways that work for us … despite what the innovation initiatives tell us.

My method is simply to be an informed reader. I absorb it but do not follow each method. I take a little from one, a little from another, and a little from yet another. My congregation and I are trying as best we can to follow our God-given instincts, knowing we walk in faith and grace. As Brian McLaren stated in his book of the same title: “We make the road by walking.” So, we’re paving a way forward, even as we lay down the bricks.

We’re paving a way forward, even as we lay down the bricks.

Only God knows where we are going, so we try our best to be faithful (and informed) for the journey.

What do you suggest we read? We’ll add it to our stack…