I serve a small rural church in my retirement, and have become marginally associated with the local ministers group that represents the more conservative/evangelical congregations in their area. That they have included me is in itself something of a holy mystery, but I digress. They have lately expressed a sense of dissatisfaction with what they call the state of the church in their valley, which is just on the other side of the ridge from the valley in which I live. However, I don’t think their sense of dissatisfaction is much different from that expressed by clergy from many denominations in many parts of the country.
In any case, I had some questions about what they are thinking and how they are feeling that might resonate with others as well. They went something like this.
Can you say more about the state of the church that has caused this sense of dissatisfaction? How would you describe it to someone who has no knowledge of the church or the valley? You have said that the church seems to have little impact on society, and that you want to see more of the power of God and the fire of God’s Spirit in people’s lives. What would it look like if the church did have the impact you think it should on society? What would be different? Would your vision of that impact include, at least in part, some public recognition of the importance of the various churches as influential in the life of the community and the decisions that are made in it? Would that also mean that the various ministers of those churches be seen as important to the life of the community?
In like manner, if the power of God and the fire of God’s Spirit were seen in persons’ lives, what would that look like? How would it be different from what you see now? Do you have particular persons in mind? For instance, is it in the lives of your congregants that you desire to see this power and Spirit at work, is it in the lives of others, or is it both in some way?
You have said that you see the church losing ground. In what way do you see the church losing rather than gaining ground? If it was gaining ground, what would be different? I imagine that some part of that answer would be a higher percentage of the population attending church and making a mature commitment to follow Christ within the various traditions of what that means in each of our denominations. If that is true, what else would it look like?
You have wondered if it is possible that God is doing a new thing through this sense of dissatisfaction. I doubt that you really mean to ask if it is possible, but rather wonder what God is already doing. Oddly enough, you may not know. God does not seem to be much interested in whether those called to ordained ministry understand what he is up to. It can be very frustrating. To that end I am reminded of a portion of Isaiah’s 55th chapter in which God, speaking through the prophet, says:
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For what it’s worth, my argument within the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane has been that for several decades we clergy have allowed our congregations to become comfort stations for the faithful rather than places of formation for discipleship. We are working on that.