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From The Rector

Let me start this month’s article with a quote: 

It is not the Church of God that has a mission, but the God of mission who has a church.  -- Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury 

In a recent article, “A Growing Church is a Dying Church”, the Rev’d. J. Barrett Lee wrote passionately about what it means to be a thriving, alive, and growing church, both as a Church and as a local parish congregation. He begins the article by asking a central question often in the minds of congregants, “Will the pastor be able to make our church grow?” What follows is an honest and challenging answer to that question. He writes, “I’m going to go ahead and answer that question right now: No, she will not. 

No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to its glory days.

What then can your pastor do? She can make your board meetings longer with prayer and Bible study. She can mess with your sense of familiarity by changing the order of worship and the arrangement of the sanctuary. She can play those strange new songs and forget about your favorite old hymns. She can keep on playing those crusty old hymns instead of that hot new contemporary praise music. She can bug you incessantly about more frequent celebration of Communion. She can ignore your phone call because she’s too busy praying. She can ruin your perfectly balanced budget with appeals for more funds to be allocated toward mission and outreach. She can take up your precious evenings with kooky new book studies and meditation groups. She can take up your precious weekends with exhausting volunteer projects. She can open your church building to the ugliest and meanest freaks in town, who show up at odd hours, beg for handouts, track muddy snow into the building, leave their cigarette butts in the parking lot, and spill their coffee on the carpet during their Junkies Anonymous meetings.

She can come off sounding like a Jesus freak evangelical, gushing on and on about the Bible and your personal relationship with God. She can come off sounding like a smells n’ bells catholic, pontificating on and on about tradition and sacraments. She can come off sounding like a bleeding-heart liberal, prattling on and on about social justice and the need to constantly question old interpretations.

What can she do to grow your church? Nothing. There’s nothing your pastor can do to make your church grow. She can’t save your church. Your church already has a Savior and it’s not her. She can push you. She can open doors. She can present you with opportunities. It’s up to you to take advantage of them. She can plant seeds and water them. It’s up to God to make them grow.

And what if that happens? What will growth look like? Will all those old, inactive members suddenly return? Will the pews be packed again? Will you need to start a second service and buy the lot next door in order to expand the parking lot? No. You might see a few new faces in the crowd. There won’t be many of them. Some might stick around but most won’t. Those who stay won’t fit in with the old guard. They won’t know about how you’ve always done it. They’ll want to make changes of their own. Their new ideas will make you uncomfortable. Your church won’t look or feel like it used to. You’ll feel like you’re losing control of this place that you’ve worked so hard to preserve. It will feel like your church is dying.

And that’s just the thing. A growing church is a dying church. It has to be. It cannot be otherwise. The way to Easter Sunday goes through Good Friday. The way to the empty tomb goes through Golgotha. The way to resurrection goes through crucifixion. When Jesus told you to take up your cross and follow, did you expect it to lead anywhere else? What Jesus told us about himself is also true of churches: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears no fruit.

But what if it doesn’t work? What if you let your pastor do all that crazy stuff and nobody new shows up? What if the church still goes under? What if all that time you spend studying the Bible, expanding your horizons, deepening your spiritual life, and serving your community turns out to be time wasted? What if it does?”

Sounds familiar in many ways, does it not? We find ourselves asking these very questions, right here and right now. Every church, particularly smaller congregations like ours, is having to ask questions about identity and purpose in ways that were not as pressing before the downturn in our economy, or before America had begun to no longer feel the same need to attend worship services every Sunday. More and more, congregations are having to ask difficult questions about viability and long-term planning with an increasing sense of anxiety and urgency.

The problem with these conversations is that they tend to center on administration and not on discovering and deepening an identity of being disciples of Jesus, participating in God’s mission in our local communities, and being willing to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God for the sake of our neighbors.

What is so difficult for us all to wrap our minds around is the deep reality that Jesus calls us all to become disciples, to passionately and deeply take his life into ourselves, to be shaped and formed by the Holy Spirit through our worship of God on Sunday and our serving all of God’s people in our community throughout the week. We are not called to build temples of brick and mortar. We are not called to have a mission of our own. We are called to build a temple made out of the materials of our very lives, to practice absolute welcome for all people, by both extending the invitation to all people to join our congregational life of worship and mission and by extending ourselves into their lives, where they live, so that they can experience that absolute welcome and know it to be real. Our aliveness, our strength, our hope, our continued presence as a local worshipping community of disciples can only be found if we are willing to embrace and to consume the life of Jesus as our only true hope, both in his death and his resurrection.

Lest we anxiously exhaust ourselves through mistakenly believing that we have to change the world, or even just our local community, by our strength alone, and so frantically throw ourselves into every service project that we can imagine, we can actually find a place of peace, of strength, and of hope in knowing that God is continually pouring out grace and the Holy Spirit into each of us. We are not in this by ourselves! We simply have to offer ourselves to God to be and do what he asks of us, and then watch with awesome wonder what God will do through us. God is with us!

We simply must discover, rediscover, and continually deepen our identity as disciples of Jesus if we are to have any real hope, strength, and joy as a worshipping community of faithful people. Are we willing to bravely follow where Jesus is leading us?

In hope,

― Fr. Troy+