I’ve been working as a consultant to a congregation that has faced a combination of issues: structural problems with the building, a declining average Sunday attendance, clergy burnout and turnover, and the need to restructure debt.
A few days ago we had meeting with the leadership to establish a new direction that involves the restructuring of the congregation as the cost of restructuring their debt and completing needed repairs. With it came the “planting” of a new mission for a new congregation. On the one hand it was an encouraging moment. There is a future, a very hopeful future for this church, in this place, at this time. The current members of the congregation will be the seedbed for what is yet to come. The majority of current leadership looked forward to a new future and expressed enthusiasm for the hard work ahead.
On the other hand, it was a sad moment. Several of the old time leaders, the ones who have always been able to call the shots no matter who the elected leadership were, finally realized that their time was over. Control had been taken away from them. As we talked at length about a new mission in a revitalized congregation, one of them said, quite honestly, “I don’t want a new church, I want the old church.” His heart was broken.
However much he, and some others, want the old church to come back, it is gone for good. What will be remains to be seen. Whatever it is to become, it will include persons participating in and leading worship for whom Christianity, church and our denomination are likely to be a new experience. Like the new Christians of Corinth and Ephesus, Phillipi and Thessalonica, they will come from other traditions or no tradition at all. They will learn by practice and teaching what it means to be Christians within our tradition, but in new ways that will be unfamiliar, even off putting, to more than a few of the old timers.
A building that had become a sanctuary from the outside world will become a place of worship that leads to, and cannot be separated from, engagement with the surrounding community, not as a social service agency, but at the body of Christ continuing his ministry of healing and reconciliation in the community.
My role, my time, with this congregation is coming to an end. What began as an assignment to help them with a building problem became something else altogether. Now they will be served by others well trained in congregational development, but they will remain close to my heart and in my prayers. I will pray for courage, strength and patience for their new leadership, and I will pray for consolation for the former leaders who are just now grieving a death that happened a decade ago but went unrecognized.
There are, I think, parallels with the raising of Lazarus. Beloved of Jesus, yet dead just the same, his corps had become a decomposing stench. But what looks dead to us is not dead to God. Although Jesus called him from the grave, it took human effort to roll away the stone and unbind him so that he could freely enter into a new life, his by the grace of God. The resurrection of this congregation will be like that. Although Christ will call them forth, it will take human effort to roll away the stones that have sealed them in a tomb of their own making. It will take human effort to unbind them from practices and attitudes that have kept them from freely following Christ into the world. Christ has called. The stones have been removed. We shall see how the unbinding goes.