A Worrying Thought About the Disappearance of the Local Church
A Worrying Thought About the Disappearance of the Local Church
Mostly I just don't want to think about it.
I mean the slowly eroding commitment to the local church, numbers more than enthusiasm, though that is lacking too. Point as you will to the emergence of the mega-church, with its smiling preacher and rock Gospel songs, its huge auditoriums and televised services; to me, however, such popularity sounds like the last gasp, albeit a cheerful one, of a dying patient.
The reasons for this demise are many, and I shall not here rehearse them in depth. Start with demographics. And an educated generation with whom the church has not kept pace. The inevitable petering out over time of every historical movement, and why should evangelical Protestantism, even Wesley's Methodism, escape those erosions? The ascendancy in academia and on op-ed pages of the Enlightenment's naively arrogant assumption that religion is little more than superstition. The church's preoccupation with its own life, organization, and history. Each of these reasons would take a book to explain fully. That's not my purpose here.
Here I want to regret and at the same time celebrate one of the likely casualties of the disappearance of a local church.
Namely, it's nurture.
On a recent Saturday we ferried to Port Jefferson. As we neared the restaurant where we were to rendezvous with a couple planning a March wedding, I spotted the groom whom I have not seen in the past five years. We hugged the way men do and he introduced us to his bride-to-be. We spent the next couple of hours remembering and bringing each other up to date on what has transpired in our and our family's lives in the past eleven years since I was his pastor. In the wonderful haze of nostalgia I almost missed the theme of his life, wanting to do the right and gracious thing. I won't take credit for that admirable conviction; but he certainly would allow me the suspicion that I figured in it somewhere, through the Sundays and weekends of Junior High fellowship and confirmation classes.
There is no relationship quite like a pastoral one. Doctors nurture the body; teachers, the mind; but pastors focus on the soul, which is, in the way I think about it (the soul, that is), the totality of our being as we make our way from one eternity to the next.
Yes, I have sounded this theme before, and in the process (please forgive me!) given myself a big pat on the back. Like my memories of eighteen years in Brooklyn: how, unbeknownst to me at the time in the middle of it, I had been chosen to serve as a surrogate father for a couple of generations of children in the community, especially during their teen years as they emerged from childhood into maturity often amid troubled homes. Drug and alcohol addiction were the primary culprits, along with the attendant familial dysfunction. Some forty years later one of the girls (now in her sixties) reported to me that then (ca 1968) "you, pastor, seemed so old." I was in my 30's. She's the one who on New Year's Eve near Times Square, where the youth fellowship begged me to take them, surprised me with a peck on the cheek at midnight. St. Agatha Catholic Church down the avenue had several fathers in the rectory; but none of them were allowed even during the tenure of Pope John XXIII to be a father, close, vulnerable, and involved like the one in the Methodist Church three blocks away.
That white stucco church built by Norwegian immigrants, the one eventually pastored by "the poor boy who can't speak Norwegian," was a lighthouse in an urban sea, from which the keeper launched out daily, in the words of the old hymn, to rescue struggling seamen... even when said keeper was unaware that that was what he was doing.
Nurture, I've provided it but it has also been provided me. In First Methodist Church, Stamford CT, by the pastors, sure, but also by the youth fellowship supervisors, a number of them, none more so than Peg Worley Studwell, whose encouragement to me during my two year term as the president of the MYF influenced me (if not as much as Mom) to enter the ordained ministry. But I have already told you about the kindnesses done me by that church: You Can Go Home Again - Sermon.
With the disappearance of the community-based church, who will perform the nurturing? Sure, there are plenty of potential surrogates out there, teachers, coaches, kindly neighbors, big brothers and sisters, men and women who take the time and go out of their way for the coming generation. However admirable and effective their surrogacy, it cannot and probably should not be framed in the context a pastor brings to that office: namely, one that is religious, ethical, and spiritual. More's the pity.
Not that every clergyperson in an earlier time applied herself intensively to nurturing. Some of us recoiled at the thought of visiting the sick, or, more to the point of this essay, playing kickball with kids. In fact, in my era (the last half of the 20th century) it had become something of an assumed pattern, that once the ordained preacher reached fifty years of age he would pass the supervision of the youth fellowship to someone younger and (so it was assumed) better able to handle the humiliations teenagers seem obliged to visit on adults. Which avoidance fails to measure the payoff in humility and reality vouchsafed the turned-around-collar who accepts such vulnerability.
I keep a consoling thought on this subject, a faithful consideration voiced on a recent Sunday from the pulpit by someone else, about the infinite resourcefulness of God. The Good Shepherd will always find a way to retrieve the lost sheep. I can only begin to imagine how it will be. Maybe it will be as it was at the beginning of the church, with small circles of faith meeting in homes and a participant with a gift for reaching out to others non-judgmentally, understanding them, and encouraging them, patient beyond reason, that kind of believer in the circle of faith might be enlisted (ordained?) to do the nurturing full time, paid for by the others in the community of faith. Without roofs to patch and furnaces to light there will be plenty of wherewithal to fund a nurturer.
I may worry about the church of tomorrow; but if God is a God who brings to life that which isn't (God does, God does!), then I promise to be among the chorus of guardian angels looking down with gladness and surprise at the nurturers who will, by God's sure grace, be raised up for the third millennia.