The idea of progress and continual growth is a lie we’ve believed from modernity. Growing up in western Pennsylvania during the collapse of industry and manufacturing, I’ve learned things don’t always get better. Some change does not equate to growth and prosperity. On the other hand, to get stuck in a narrative of decline and dismemberment doesn’t help us find our way either.
I visited the Philippines on my first trip out of the country. There I visited a steel mill and a clothing manufacturer — industries that had employed many people in my home community. While the tour was supposed to give us a glimpse of Southeast Asia’s harsh working conditions, I was impacted by watching the world turn.
Livelihoods that supported my families slipped away to other countries. Both of my grandfathers worked in the steel industry. My mom managed a large apparel manufacturing facility. Even then, 25 years ago, I felt the change coming. The Philippines facilities were newer and cleaner than what I had known in Pennsylvania. The global economy was about to do a number on western Pennsylvania that would mean all sorts of changes.
At the same time, I refuse to get stuck in the narrative of decline. Things aren’t as they used to be, though they never really are. Change is a constant. But constant growth can also be a cancer. In western Pennsylvania, the growth of heavy industry wreaked havoc on the environment. I was told to stay away from creeks. I grew accustomed to the smells of steelmaking and coal mining.
Today my Philadelphia neighbor proclaims the small creek near the mining community where I grew up is one of his favorite places to kayak.
For the church, it’s easy to get caught up in this narrative of not having enough resources to do what we used to do. Technology has changed how we approach life and faith and religious practice. These are the kinds of industrial and technological changes that helped shape our Anabaptist movement 500 years ago.
Some churches are not as full as they used to be, and some church institutions are not as flush with cash. Many of our schools have fewer students. People feel less loyalty to the institutions that were constructed in faith and in response to the questions and changes that occupied previous generations.
We will need to become comfortable with lament as changes continue. We have to refine and readjust how our institutions might survive and flourish.
This will take some powerful and creative collaboration. It will require freeing resources for new initiatives our changing world requires.
The message of Christ’s peace is too important for us to believe that the best years are behind us, too radical to believe in the lie of modernity’s progress of bigger and better as the measure of growth and faithfulness.
At the same time, recognizing possibilities in the midst of these changes and shifts will require faithful risk-taking if we hope to flourish as individuals, communities and a movement of discipleship.
This will mean attending to the visions of the young and the dreams of the old. We will have to hold on to hope and the power of the Resurrection, which defies the logic of modernity.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.