Dustin D. Benac
How to Find Hope in an Ice Age
Spotify ads now include sound bites of communal wisdom.
Between tracks of Taylor Swift’s latest record, an insurance ad notes how, “We have to adapt.” Later, once my ad-free session expires, a gentle voice enjoins, “We’re better together.”
Pausing for a moment, I wonder: How true this is for ecclesial communities? The patterns and paradigms that guide communities of faith have shifted. In the words of Treebeard from J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Return of the King," “The world is changing.”
This is not the first time communities of faith have faced unexpected and un(for)seen circumstances, nor will it be the last. Yet change requires a presence that may prompt creativity.
Writing as a practical theologian and organizational theorist, I’m persuaded by these Spotify prophets: (1) We have to adapt and (2) we’re better together.
If we have to adapt, the moment calls for wisdom and action, from all of us. In a widely discussed piece published on March 20, Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard distinguish between a blizzard, winter, and a little ice age to describe this cultural-ecclesial moment. A “blizzard” blows in quickly and then passes; the chill of “winter” subsides after several months. A “little ice age,” however, brings a “years-long disruption.” Citing Gideon Lichfield, they conclude: “We’re not going back to normal.”
For communities of faith, this little ice age does not just temporarily shutter churches and change the way we gather for worship. The cataclysm shifts the ecclesial ecology in decisive ways. Pastors, lay leaders, children, parents, students, educators, nonprofit leaders, and volunteers all feel its effects.
As this little ice age grasps and even suspends the organizations that nurture meaning, care, connection, and imagination, change becomes unavoidable. In some organizations, institutional death has become a reality. In others, previously unforeseen possibilities have also emerged.
Like sailors suspended over uncertain waters, we — individually and collectively — lean into the unknown, hoping the ties to our communities will hold, that the Spirit of God will carry us forward.
As we stare down the prospect of a little ice age, how do we find hope? How do we find hope to stay connected? Hope to trust in the words and work of God?
It’s true, we really are better together. Neighborhoods have rallied together amid a pandemic. Pastors and IT teams have worked minor miracles to move church online. Protesters hold vigil to our shared fragility and a hope for a more just, equitable, and connected future. This combined witness kindles hope; it reminds us that we’re not alone, that others are moved to care and decency.
We also find hope by learning from other adaptive communities of faith.
I spent the last five years studying how communities of faith adapt to uncertain circumstances and shifting organizational environments. Logging nearly 100 hours of interviews and site visits in the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast, and the Northeast, I’ve interviewed pastors, lay leaders, nonprofit professionals, funders, foundation executives, educators, college presidents, deans, and church planters. This texture of American religious life is tattooed in my mind. Like a greatest hits playlist of adaptability on the edge of certainty, their words and wisdom run on repeat through my mind.
First, we find hope where we receive connection and care. Uncertainty leaves many of us, especially the most vulnerable, feeling exposed and alone. Care and connection are the precondition for adaptive change; starved of hope, imagination dies. As communities and leaders navigate this moment, hope emerges from the fabric of compassion and interdependence.
Connection and care invite us to see what is possible, to see the more in ordinary spaces, even in the face of immense uncertainty. Even in online spaces, connection and care can grow by attending to the details about how we gather. Like bulbs planted in good soil, hope grows from such community, returning to bring light and life year after year.
Second, we find hope when we attend to the local, relational fabric that surrounds our lives and communities. When we cannot gather or travel as we once did, we are left with an indelible feature of ecclesial existence: place. We do not realize the importance of place until other features fall away. This constant presence may conceal its importance for the life of faith, but our lives and religious organizations never rise above place. Even in a moment of expansive digital connection, hope literally takes place.
Attending to place invites us to see the neighborhoods and networks of relationships that surround us. Hope emerges from these placed encounters. The importance of locality does not diminish the need for organizations; we need religious organizations now more ever. As connectors and conveners, religious organizations come alongside, call us to the commons, and deepen mutual bonds. Hope grows when individuals and organizations join in partnership, supporting flourishing of local communities.
Third, we find hope in the presence of friends who bear witness to God’s ongoing activity. The work of adaptive change is always the work of individuals who are bound together by trust, a common cause, and mutual care. Friendship creates a social and relational space for creativity and imagination. When enlivened by the right resources and effective leadership, these flashes of hope-filled adaptation can spread through an entire community.
The catalysts for the communities I’ve studied follow service to a community and abiding friendship. Their work on the edge of certainty emerged from the bonds of friendship and an abiding sense of God’s presence, inviting individuals and communities into holy and creative work. They are friends before they are collaborators. They are neighbors before they are teachers. They listen before seeking to change their community. They are loved by God before they love others. As Sarah Jobe writes in "Creating with God," “We worship a God of endless possibilities.” Similarly, as we learn to be received by others and by an ever-creative God, we find hope.
The world is changing, and we have to adapt.
As we lean into the unknown, we may encounter a hope. Hope that stirs connection, care, and creativity. A hope that reaches beyond our limits. A hope that reminds us we are not alone.
Dustin D. Benac is a practical theologian and organizational theorist working to understand and tell the stories of communities of faith and those who serve them. He is a post-doctoral associate at Duke University Divinity School.