An Ethical Musings reader wondered how courage might help the Episcopal Church. The reader noted, "There is too much handwringing in despair over attendance, income, demographics, etc., and not enough courage to be faithful and optimistic disciples in, or despite, the new reality." The reader is correct: courage could transform the Episcopal Church as well as other denominations. Here are three thoughts.
First, our spiritual exemplar, Jesus, modeled courage:
For Jesus, “Be not afraid” was not a magic refrain, a cheap exhortation akin to whistling past a graveyard. The precondition of the fearlessness he preached was the terrifyingly brutal circumstance of Rome’s lethal capriciousness, and he knew about fear from his own experience—dating back to the Roman legions’ rampages through the territory in which he was raised, climaxing in the cruel fate of his mentor John the Baptist. And there’s the point. “Be not afraid” was corollary, for Jesus, to “You are my beloved Son”—the transcendent affirmation that came to him in John’s presence. Having been spared from fear himself, Jesus understood what that release was like. (James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age, p. 181)
Furthermore, walking the Jesus path demands courage because emulating Jesus frequently puts one at odds with a skeptical world that belittles spiritual realities, tends to think pessimistically instead of optimistically about the future, and accepts Christianity's demise as a given.
Second, tough times can engender courage:
Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all. Do you see the catastrophic error that the Germans made? They bombed London because they thought that the trauma associated with the Blitz would destroy the courage of the British people. In fact, it did the opposite. It created a city of remote misses, who were more courageous than they had ever been before. The Germans would have been better off not bombing London at all. (Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (), p. 149)
Churches can learn much from the Nazi bombing of London. Courage grows well in a culture of resilience and perseverance. Resilience and perseverance characterize the culture of most small congregations, as it did London's culture. Good leaders make a difference. Whether lay or ordained, good church leaders convey an ecclesial version of the dauntless courage and optimism with which Winston Churchill stiffened Londoners' resolve to prevail against the blitz. Survival, although essential, is not equivalent to victory. Great churches – whatever their size – engage in meaningful mission, bringing life abundant to hurting, broken, and dying people and neighborhoods.
United Church of Christ pastor and consultant Anthony B. Robinson in his book, Transforming Congregational Culture, describes attending a congregational meeting of a small church that was debating whether to close after enduring a losing, multi-year survival struggle:
The discussion went back and forth for some time. Some said that the wise thing to do was give the church a decent burial; others proposed new ways of going about the church's life and ministry. As a child, Joshua was not invited to speak, until there was a lull in the discussion, and no one knew what to say or do next. Someone in the group turned to Joshua and said, 'What do you think, Joshua?' The boy thought for a moment and then said, 'You're going to need the Bible. And you're going to have to be the brave.' It became clear that the Holy Spirit had chosen to speak to that church through a child. (p. 97)
Transformative churches listen for God and then dare to step boldly and confidently into an uncertain future of service, jettisoning what is unessential, and trusting that their limited resources are sufficient for the task ahead.