Notes from a First Year Preacher
How Many Souls Shrink in Church?
I missed one Sunday and then two. One person from the church called to see how I was. "We are so busy," was my excuse. I tried to keep going for another six months, mostly out of obligation to those who had loved us so steadily.
The newsletters from the church began to focus on problems in the denomination, blaming shrinking membership on the ordination of gay pastors. I don't really know what I think about gay pastors, but it just didn't seem like they were to blame for declining attendance. Who would be the next target: single parents? The community embrace that had sustained me drifted away.
These days, when I have the energy, I take my kids on walks in the woods near town on Sunday mornings. I miss the church: the music, the opportunities for my children, the reminder that I am not alone in my journey. But my soul finds a better sanctuary in the woods. My questions go unanswered, but there is space for them in the trees. In the gentle breeze whistling through the branches, I know I am not alone.
How many souls shrink in church? While I believe a walk in the woods is a wonderfully acceptable form of worship, I also believe churches embody the grace and truth of authentic spiritual community that is found nowhere else. Sadly, many don't experience that.
Churches that have space for the great unanswerables of life are essential. Forget the latest church growth technique. Stop worrying about the quality of your social media. Drop the need to have airtight theology. Ask yourself: Is there room in our church for questions—real questions, the ones without answers? Do we love people for whom life does not fit into neat and tidy boxes?
My quick answer is yes, immediately revealing how far I have to go. In truth, there are days that I wrap God up real pretty when I'm leading worship, preaching, or giving pastoral counseling. Stock answers are easier to find and my ego demands I look like the expert.
Pastors and churches insure themselves with simple constructs and timeless truths, not realizing the soul-deadening effect it has on those for whom life is much more complex. Life has never been clean cut, but in our world of global economic crises and relentless injustice, there is no way to hide behind simplistic theology or ministry. Cutting-edge ministry in a society moving out of modernity will be judged on its ability to resist quick equations and cold objective theology.
These three remain: faith, hope, and love. Instead of dogma, the markers of our church must be faith that sustains bold truth-telling rather than easy answers. Hope allows us to live with unanswered questions, trusting they will lead us beyond ourselves. Love listens and is willing to be challenged by the realities around us. Choosing this path, we witness to the glory and strength of a God whose mystery and revelation never ends. We fool ourselves to settle for anything less.
Jenny Warner is the Pastor for Justice, Spirituality, and Community at First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon. She graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in Intercultural Studies and Psychology in 1992, and in 2010, received a Masters of Divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is a trained spiritual director, certified by Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle.