This weekend, the eight churches participating in the Unglued Church project in Pittsburgh Presbytery gathered with our consultants from California to check in, review our impressions of the work done thus far, and begin the process of making a decision for adaptive change. I am serving as an adaptive change apprentice for one of the participating churches, and as pastor for my own church who is also part of the project.
On Saturday morning, a dozen or so members of my congregation met with our consultant and our apprentice. As pastor, my role was to listen and reflect upon the conversation. In other words, I kept my mouth shut.
Early in the discussion, our consultant asked the question, “What is your biggest hope and your biggest fear about the Unglued work?”
After reviewing the notes I took during the conversation, I have concluded that the consensus seems to be:
Biggest hope: We keep the building
Biggest fear: We lose/sell the building.
I wrote down one quote that said: “We’ll do anything, try anything so we can stay in/keep this building.” Because I was under a gag order from the consultant, I couldn’t say, “Are you will do anything, try anything, give up anything to live into the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”
I don’t think that question would have gone over well.
When I entered into ministry, I accepted the reality that I would be serving people who would likely be quite different than I — in their theology, political views, life experience, cultural background, etc. I realized that I would need to spend more time listening than talking, and work very hard to meet people exactly where they are without judgment. I understood that I would need to model a pastoral countenance of radical acceptance and deep compassion. I knew that that I wouldn’t have all the answers, and I would need to stay continually engaged in prayer, theological reflection, and study of Scripture. In my ordination, I vowed to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. I knew that vow would be a hard one to honor some days.
What I wasn’t prepared for, however, is the reality that for many people, church has been and continues to be the place they go on Sunday morning at 11 am to feel warm and fuzzy for an hour or so, see their friends, then go home without anything having changed for them. Occasionally, they enjoy getting together for dinners and for Bible study. They write checks to keep the building from falling down, the religious professional (the pastor) paid, and to take care of poor people far away. They even write checks to support missionaries taking the “Word of God” to people in other countries, but it isn’t at all clear to me that the “Word” has had much discernible impact on them.
I feel like a terrible, judgmental person even writing these words. And I know it’s completely unfair for me, somebody who takes the Gospel so (too) seriously that I decided to devote my life to helping other people take it seriously too, to criticize laypeople who have faithfully spent most of their lives upholding the institution in the best way they knew how to do.
But I wonder…
As every religious institution in our country continues to lose members and money and influence, perhaps what we are learning is that very few of its adherents really took any of this Gospel stuff seriously to begin with. Maybe church was just a habit practiced by a certain class of people in a certain period of time. Maybe “going to church” was like joining any other club. Maybe church really wasn’t much different than the Elk Club or the country club or the bowling league or any other organized institution that is declining along with the church.
I really do understand what church people are going through. The building my members love so much represents a history that matters to them; it is the place where they were married, their babies were baptized, their kids went to vacation bible school, and their parents were eulogized. The building is a place where they spent Sunday mornings listening to pleasant music and sermons, surrounded by people who were also mostly pleasant. I am a child of the church and have great memories of events that took place in the church in which I grew up.
Although almost nobody would argue against the fact that “the church is the people,” the church building is still where everyone feels closer to God.
The problem, of course, is that God never was only in the building, no matter how many fond memories people have of the candlelit Christmas Eve services and adorable babies being baptized.
And, if you ask me, I think God left many of our buildings a long, long time ago. If you ask me, I think God has gotten tired of waiting for church people to be the church instead of going to church. I think the Holy Spirit has moved out of many of our institutional structures and out into places we’d never expect to find her. I think the institutional church has lost the holy skill of seeking first the Kingdom of God.
So if you ask me what my greatest hope and greatest fear is, I would have to say this:
My greatest hope is that the church (not just mine, but all of us) will wake up and realize that Jesus has kept moving ahead of us even as we’ve become more and more stuck in our pretty buildings and our endowments and our worship wars and our cultural battles about sexual morality and theological orthodoxy. I hope that we will be so intrigued, excited and inspired by what Jesus is up to in the world that we’ll get over our nostalgia and allow ourselves to get involved in the work of the God we didn’t make up. My hope is that we’ll become a lot more spiritual and a lot less religious.
My fear is that we will be having this same conversation in 20 or so years.
Today, I am remembering that statistic (which I am too lazy to look up at the moment) in which more than 50% of pastors leave ministry within the first five years. For the record, I’ve been doing this for 3 1/2 years.
I am also thinking of the words to a favorite Gungor song…
“we cannot keep you in a church
we cannot keep you in a Bible
or it’s just another idol to box you in
they could not keep you in their box
we cannot keep you in ours either
you are so much greater
who is like the Lord
the maker of the Heavens
who dwells with the poor
and he lifts them from the ashes
and he makes them sit with princes
who is like the Lord”