What a Church Needs to Do to Flourish in This Moment in Time
What a Church Needs to Do to Advance in This Moment in Time
Notice, please, I did not write "survive," as if that would ever be enough for the earthly representation of the one about whom the Letter to the Philippians claims the day will come when every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Nor, more to the point, did I write "succeed," as if standard American advertising measures were to be applied to faith; and the number of consumers/congregants and the generosity of their contributions were sure evidence of a church's faithfulness. Too many Christians in too many denominations look to the mega-church phenomenon as if it's the holy grail... when, to me, it looks more like cotton candy for the soul, sweetly alluring but not very nourishing.
That is, the church, local and general, first needs to set its true goal in clearer focus: to be a strong, faithful, and winsome witness to Jesus.
Achieving that goal, of course, requires a number of ingredients, some lofty and some mundane, all of them dependent on the pastor's leadership. Starting with the lofty...
1. Preaching that is biblical, intelligent, imaginative, realistic, and literate. In other corners of this website you will find my insistence on solid preaching, most notably under "Book," Chapter 8: Teller of Tales and Maker of Metaphors. I'll try not to be my customary pain in the... neck, but I simply must report my finding, during my earlier itinerancy in retirement, that preaching seems to be a secondary emphasis among both clergy and laity, but especially clergy. The pulpit too often sacrifices accuracy and literacy for fluency. The pulpit too often justifies "off the cuff" sermons as going with the Spirit, as if the third person of the Trinity were averse to study and precision. The world hungers for meaning and the pulpit too often gives them a lot less, substitutes like excitement, emotion, and fantasy. I know, I know, the pastor's life isn't her own: so many congregants, so many needs, so little time. Something's got to give. Unfortunately, what usually gives is the time and thought twenty minutes of lucid and arresting reflection on a biblical text demands. That's a pity... if not treason. No way I will return to the same pew following a week when it's obvious the pulpit was winging it. Preaching is the church's job one.
2. Pastoral care performed with compassion, wisdom, and persistence. Sure, let the pastor recruit cadres of lay people to assist with home visits, communion to shut-ins, spotting and greeting new people at worship. Loaves of bread for newcomers, Stephen ministries, a prayer corner on the Sabbath for those in special need of prayer and a sympathetic ear, any of the institutionalized patterns of friendliness: they are wonderful. Let a thousand carnations bloom on ushers and deacons' lapels. But, and a very important "but" it is, let love be genuine for all of its systematic application. Piety, prayer, and Bible quotes, as appropriate as they may be, are never sufficient in themselves, if they are not attended with patient listening, a suspension of judgment, and a heart as open to the other as God's heart is open to you (miserable sinner that you and I are!). People hunger for personal relationships, need them to live and endure in a world which is often a cruel and lonely place; and the Christian fellowship provides that possibility. I am not advocating the church as an open confessional. Indeed, I would be the first to be put off by that strategy where everyone told it like it is, warts and all, as with Wesley's class system (which is probably the reason, intrusiveness instead of handling with care, it has become a relic in Methodist history). The conventions of social intercourse aren't to be abandoned in a holy fervor of spiritual honesty. That, spiritual honesty, becomes another form of spiritual aggression. Just don't let the prudent social conventions of modesty and restraint make the coffee hour as stiff and shallow as a cocktail party.
3. A sense of mission, that the church is here for God's sake. Some of the appeal of evangelical ministries is their certainty, expressed often and loudly, that they are out to win souls for Jesus. Mainline Protestant churches counter with the claim they are in business to make the world a better place. Both are right and both miss the point... the point being that the church is in the world for the world, first, to make sure the Gospel is proclaimed and sacramental grace served; and, secondly, to be a haven and hospital for restoring broken souls for life's inevitable struggles. Believe that and believe that God is infinitely resourceful (able to raise up from the stones children of Abraham!) and you will stop worrying about the durability of one tabernacle or another on this journey toward eternity. That is, nothing advances better than faithful certainty in God's power and mercy, and heaven's willingness to employ you for these ends. It's the bandwagon effect; but you can't fake it. Like that orange and blue sign the Junior Highs gave me on retirement, the one now hanging in our garage, a blast from the Mets past, a quote from St. Tug McGraw: "You gotta believe." When a church does, believe, truly believe, the contagion of certainty pushes it into the future on the backs and in the hearts of those drawn to its mission.
4. Moving to the mundane: a church building that is welcoming in its appearance. Maybe we shouldn't judge a book by its cover; but most of us do. First impressions are persistent. Take it from someone who has worshipped in more than fifty different churches since retirement. I can provide you with a mental snapshot of each of those fifty and tell you whether or not the lawn was edged or the paint peeling. Well-meaning disciples often rue the expense of bricks and mortar and yearn for a movable church without anchoring debt. That, however, is not the world we live in. Spare me, please, the hand-wringing over the cost of a new chandelier, how that money could have been used for a clinic in Haiti, a complaint in which I hear echoes of a similar protest against the extravagance of a jar of perfume poured on a certain Jewish head. Hire a landscaper, buy a new state-of-the-art audio system, repoint the bricks, buy the choir new robes, keep the pipe organ in tune, install air-conditioning, and... well, you get the picture, the appealing picture, of a place where you would like to visit and, maybe, stay. It works for a "field of dreams," and it will work for a field of faith. Build it, improve it, make it appealing, and "they" will come.
Okay, so I am exaggerating more than a little. Of course, the church must balance its priorities, between self and others. Just don't let the church building become another dilapidated mansion; make it a community gem.
The list could go on... and on and on and on. I've lots of advice, some of it good, about the church and: children, finances, music, ecumenism, bishops, etc. My book, published in its entirety on this website, offers most of it. What I am after in this essay on the once and future church is not so much a blueprint as a sense of direction. In my retired status as a member of the laity I have heard congregants moan about attendance and finances and building maintenance ad nauseam. This past week I received and replied to a letter seeking such wisdom as I might have for a church in its third century, thinking it might now have to abandon its building for want of funds. My "wisdom" for them and the rest of us is: hold on, smarten up, and lean on your friends. There are no easy solutions. Oh, sure, I have heard many quick fixes offered: a little whoopee in worship, vim and vigor, like one sees on TV in representations of Black churches; a return to John Wesley, his evangelical fervor and the class system; tamping down reference in sermons and newsletters to controversial issues; PowerPoint on large screens; and rock bands instead of pipe organs. Compared to these "daring" proposals my wisdom (that what the church needs, always has, and always will, is faith, hope, and love, offered intelligently and compassionately) will be deemed as appropriate as Haydn at a Bon Jovi concert. But with the church, as with other areas of human endeavor, substance endures and style passes.
Fifty three years ago this past June 2nd I was ordained as an Elder in the Methodist Church. Here's a photo of the document presented me on that occasion.
There it is in Elizabethan English, my job as a pastor to help provide the church a future: "administer the Sacraments and Ordinances and to Feed the Flock of Christ... and hold fast the form of sound words according to the established doctrines of the Gospel." Points two and one are included there, though there is no mention of air-conditioning. Mission is implicit. I guess I am a throwback after all, but one leaning hard toward tomorrow.