Note: Christiana Rice, coauthor with Michael Frost of To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), participated in a panel discussion at the West Coast Symposium on Religious Disaffiliation in Santa Clara, CA, in December 2018. The panel was sponsored by Saint Mary’s Research as part of its efforts to present findings and lead workshops on the implications of disaffiliation for Catholic ministry. Links to Rice speaking at that event punctuate the following blog post.
In their book To Alter Your World: Partnering with God to Rebirth Our Communities, authors Michael Frost and Christiana Rice posit that God is giving birth to something new and good in these “post-Christendom” times. As the institution of church experiences a decline in religious affiliation, the church finds itself called to consider a new vision for its role in the world. The authors offer the metaphor of midwife to describe how the church might lovingly partner in “God’s ongoing work of renewal.”
The church might begin by viewing this institutional exodus through new eyes, Frost and Rice suggest.
“Leaving the institution of church as they know it has compelled people to create community in other ways—community composed through service projects, activism, contemplation, substance abuse support groups, creative placemaking endeavors, justice projects, discussion podcasts, recreational hobbies, work/entrepreneurial ventures, health and wellness groups, neighborhood groups, life-stage affinity groups, etc. In these forms of community, people are pursuing the meaning of life with a deep longing for connectedness, inner peace and a sense that they are making a difference in the world.”
Frost and Rice express concern that people feel the need “to leave the church to find this. Can’t people discover this sense of mission through the church rather than by leaving it? Can’t clergy and fellow church members foster their mission and hold them in love and accountability?”
The authors proceed to answer this concern with a humble and adventurous question: “Are these signs of the birth of the church in places we often overlook, outside our typical church paradigm? What is Christ doing here?”
For the church to effectively exercise its role as midwife, some deepened understandings are in order, and not just at an institutional level. This metaphor of midwife might serve as a useful support to parents, teachers, catechists, pastors, and other church leaders who seek to accompany a young person on her or his journey of faith in our contemporary “pluralistic context” in which people—and particularly young people—are discovering and shaping their religious identity, finding and creating emerging new forms of religious expression and seeking.
In their book, Frost and Rice describe “five practices drawn from midwifery to provide an alternative vision for joining God in birthing the new creation.” (All quotations that follow are from the book.)
“A midwife is acutely aware of the fact that her own agenda, biases and ideals can and will impact the way in which she enters a birthing experience. Telling a birthing mother that she must do this, or feel that, or act in this particular way, will often be met by confusion or anger, disempowering the woman in her own birthing experiencing. There is a powerful force working in the laboring mother’s body. Should the midwife seek to control the force, she runs the very real risk of stifling the actual thing she is called to foster. Midwives foster the birth of new life by intentionally releasing their agendas and respecting the force of birth.”
“Midwives foster the birth of new life by intentionally releasing their agendas and respecting the force of birth.”Michael Frost and Christiana Rice, To Alter Your World
The gift of the midwife is support, encouragement, and ensuring safety, not exercising control. Young people can sense when we are coming at them with an agenda rather than an invitation into a conversation that will not try to force them down a prescribed path. The authors extend an intriguing invitation: that we consider what our agendas are prior to engaging with a person. Then, trusting sufficiently in the spirit of God to guide things where they need to go, that we release our agenda and simply enter into a relationship that honors the “force” of the Spirit. How do our words, actions, attitude, and presence shape the environment in which the person labors to bring forth what the Spirit is doing in that person’s life?
Midwives “listen deeply as they create safe environments that prepare the way for the birth of new life.” Young people yearn to be listened to, to be heard. In fact, many report that no one has ever listened to their story before. Being heard is cathartic. Listening to another and holding their story as sacred and honored are spiritual acts of love often sorely missing in our pastoral care of the young.
Learn a place, Frost and Rice advise church communities. Get to know the neighborhood, its people, history, places, preferences; its story.
When we accompany young people, we must learn who they are. What are a person’s likes and dislikes? Where do they get energy, find joy; likewise what drains them of energy and joy? What are the “spaces” of a person’s life—where they live, play, eat, sleep, study, dream?
What is a person’s story? What is the “map” that traces the formation of a person’s religious and spiritual self, the touchpoints, key people, places, and other influences they followed to arrive where they are today?
Again, we must listen carefully. “Every place and its story has a purpose and gift to offer the world,” the authors write. The same can be said of every person and every person’s story.
“We need to enter fully into the societies in which God has placed us and seek to be as adaptable and daring as possible.” (To Alter Your World)
Likewise, we need to engage fully with the young people among whom God has placed us—empathetically and with deep care. Every young person, just like every birth and every mother, will be different. We must flexibly respond to the inevitable and welcome differences in every young person and every situation in which we encounter them. We need to understand an individual’s “essential aspirations” in order to accompany them on their spiritual journey.
Along the way, we must accept our own ignorance and deficiency, our own lack of discernment, our shortcomings and failures, and we must do so “with enduring patience and enlivening hope.”
Frost and Rice declare: “We must adapt to the needs and desires around us. Then we join God not as a promo for our church but as an expression of our life values, informed by Christ. Our mission no longer becomes about our particular brand of church but about the impulse of God’s creative love, already in motion, already birthing something.”
In living out this new narrative of being church in a post-Christendom world, we are likely to find God’s creative love at work in us as well, the authors add. For “in learning to follow the Spirit, emulate the Spirit and attend to what the Spirit is birthing around us, we will surely be changed.”
Jerry Ruff, Senior Writer and Editor
Saint Mary’s Research
 “I’m glad to actually finally tell my story. I have never really sat down and told anyone. Thank you for listening.” (Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, Saint Mary’s Press, 2017)