Saturday, April 25, 2015

Laying down the life of the church

"We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another." 1 John 3:16

Dear Church People,
Do you know the church is dying?  It's devastating, I know.  Trust me, I know.  It hurts to watch.

Our institutions are sliding downhill.  They just are.  My denomination, the ELCA, has declining numbers all around, and the vast majority of our congregations are likewise declining in members and money.  We're closing congregations faster than we're opening new ones.  You don't need me to tell you this.

But this post isn't just about institutions.  It's personal.  It's about not having what we used to have. 

I was one of those kids who loved everything about the church I grew up in: I sat in wooden pews snuggled up to my Mom and sisters, learning to read by following my mother's finger through Setting Two of the green LBW.  I knew all the right answers in Bible Baseball (the only kind of baseball I ever could play) and diligently learned the right steps to be the best crucifer ever.  The smell of the congregation I grew up in: dusty and wooden, with coffee brewing, and smoky when the oil candles go out: that smell will live with me my whole life.  I loved chicken soup in Lent and lilies at Easter, and the peppermint candies I got when I gave Pappy Ort a big hug.  (In the years before a man trading candy for hugs with the kids of the church would be frowned upon.)  I loved listening to the grown-ups gossip, and I danced and sang my little heart out.  I knew what corners were best for sneaking away with my book.  Pastor Lee McDaniel and his wife Maude (who was from a generation of women who couldn't have the title pastor, but she pastored me just the same) were kind and caring and listened to my 8 year old opinions.  The church I grew up in has made me who I am. And I loved it.

The church I grew up in is also gone.  I mean, the congregation is still there, and a few of the same people are there.  They're doing faithful and thriving ministry that I'd probably choose to be a part of if I still lived in my hometown.  But the building will never smell the same, and the feelings of comfort and safety I got being a child of that church can never be mine again.  That experience is dead and gone.

I feel nostalgia, and a little sadness.  But that's okay, because something else has come to life: a chance to do ministry, which is anything but safe, and a burning desire to help give that safety and comfort and love to other people.

It's one of the central tenants of our faith: things die, even very good things, and out of that death, God creates new life, even better things.

Dear church people, our institutions are dying.  They will not be here in 20 years the way they are now.  Your congregation, the one you love and honor, will look and smell different in 20 years.  Different people will be there.  And you won't have the same feelings there you do now. And that's a loss, but it's also okay.

In fact, it's good.  It needs to happen.  Because the things we've loved, that have brought us the love and comfort of God, are not necessarily the same things that bring other people the love and comfort of God.  In fact, they don't.  Our church culture, our smells, our language, our traditions, our ways of doing things, they don't make other people feel safe and loved. Wood and dusty and candle oil and peppermints from Pappy Ort make other people bored and scared and anxious.  This is one of the reasons our institutions have sliding numbers.  Our beloved culture is out of sync with the larger culture.

Our church culture, traditions, language, ways of doing things, will not be here in 20 years.  It's okay to be sad about that, to mourn, to cry, because there was a great deal of good in those things.  They made us feel safe and loved. 

If we want to, we can spend the next 20 years trying to hold on to those things for every second that we can, trying to recreate them, frustrated that it's hard, getting wisps of that old comfort but ultimately failing. Our congregations, and our denominations, will close. 

Here's the miracle: the Church is the Body of Christ, and when it dies, it will come back to life! The death of our denominations and congregations will not be the end of the Church. God will keep pulling the Body of Christ together.  People will continue to be called together by the Holy Spirit, to read Scripture and take bread and wine and share their faith and do justice and kindness in the world.  New life will come from our death.

Or, we can stop fighting death and lay down the life of the church we love. We can risk giving up all those beautiful, honored things for the sake of the world.   We can sacrifice our old ways of doing things to make other people feel safe and loved.  Maybe they like churches that smell like pumpkin spice instead of peppermint.  (I despise pumpkin spice.  But if some other kid feels safe and loved...) We can lay down our lives for our neighbors. 
And the truth is, this is going to be far harder than switching peppermint for pumpkin spice.  It's going to mean giving up our cultural dominance, confronting white middle class privilege, changing who has power in our congregations, letting go of our respectability, talking about sex, maybe even saying the word "fuck".  (More on that in another post.) It's going to feel like death.  We're going to lose some things we treasure.  It's going to feel uncomfortable.  We probably can't do it with our own power, we're probably going to need the Holy Spirit to help us, to kill us and bring us back to life.

We might be called to shed all our old ways of doing things, so that the central thing, the love of God in Jesus Christ, can save us all.

Because, ultimately, that's where our feeling of being loved and safe comes from.

God is creating a new church, new life, out of death.  Always, forever.  Your church is dying.  Thanks be to God.  Because that's how God creates new life.

Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

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