When a church is dying, The Body wants to know why. When people are leaving (or just not coming), when no new programs emerge, when there’s no money for outreach, and no passion for mission, we start asking questions: what are we doing wrong? what are we just plain not doing? It’s a sad conversation, with fatigue and frustration involved. The physical weight of the unknown and unknowable…it sits heavy on the congregational heart, and smothers everything. Even–maybe especially–the spirit of worship. (Then there’s this vicious cycle where worship is awkward and slow and painful for awhile, and then it’s REALLY a party.)
But ask these ‘what are we doing wrong?’ questions long enough, in the right Spirit, and of the right people, and you may find yourself in a church that doesn’t feel quite lifeless any more. And then–guess what–there are more questions! ‘What did we finally do right? Where are all these people coming from? And where the heck are we going to put them, now that they’re here??”
If you belong to a large church, or even a medium/regular/value-size church, you would not necessarily know, upon walking into our place on Sunday morning, that anything extraordinary is happening. However–if you are, or have every been, part of a dying church, then you will know what this place looked like on a Sunday morning 5 (?) years ago…And you would agree that to worship here today is to witness a miracle.
Since the hard work of asking questions helped initiate growth around here, then as a leader, I can’t help but feel that I should probably keep asking questions. And so I do. We all do.
But now, we ask them of new people. We ask about their lives–What do they do? What do they love? Then we ask where they’ve been, churchwise… (Which, very often, gives me an idea of what kind of damage we need to be un-doing in our ministry here. There’s a lot). And when its me talking, I always ask–why did you come here, and why do you stay?
Used to be, people didn’t really know. We’d get the occasional new person, but their responses were vague. “Everyone was so friendly and welcoming!” they’d say. Or “it’s near my house…” Or “I drive by here everyday, and for a long time now, I’ve felt drawn to this place.” I mean…not for nothing, these are important things. Being friendly, well-located, and visible helped us out of the wilderness. But ‘nice’ and ‘convenient’ do not a mission statement make. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it. But, it wasn’t what we really needed to know.
About a year and a half ago, the answers started taking on some shape… Nearly everyone who came through our doors referenced the “Open and Affirming” language, and we started to learn just how much it meant to people. Whether they saw it on the website, or on a sign out front…whether they were LGBT themselves, or just looking for a place that didn’t waste so much time and energy hating on the gays…those two little words connected with a place in the hearts and minds of people, and they started coming…and they haven’t stopped.
Recently, those responses have gotten even more specific. Our most recent flood of new folks echo a common theme. I’m paraphrasing because not everyone has the same language for it…But, in almost perfect unison, everyone I meet now tells me that they find in this community of faith a rare balance of head and heart; a church that is progressive and prophetic in its philosophies (you know, about the gays…among other things); and also reflects a joyful spirit of worship.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the Baby Jesus/Bloody Jesus problem with children’s Christian Ed materials … how the fun and exciting programs lean heavy on sin and crucifixion; while the good lesson resources tend to be very dull and, you know, heavy on the worksheets. Based on what I hear from our new folks, many congregations face the same struggle with worship. It seems like an either/or choice–do you go to the church that ordains women and serves communion to gay people? Or do you go to the place with a good band? Because –at least in the urban desert–the two qualities rarely co-exist under the same roof.
But when people find it? Turns out, that’s a pretty transforming experience. The more I think back on those ‘what are we not doing?’ conversations of several years ago, the more I realize that we made some intentional choices to become just this kind of place: A challenging, thoughtful, inclusive community that also worships joyfully and creatively. Thing is, we didn’t know what it was supposed to look like until these people started showing up…and well, they just brought it with them.
Thing is–we had to be ready to let them bring it. We had to be ready to be changed, from the inside out, by the new folks at the door. And that’s where all those questions and all that wandering turned out to be an exercise of faith.
People who come through the doors of a church for the first time are 1)looking for something and 2) bringing something with them. And sometimes, the ‘what they seek’ is the very thing they have to offer to community. Who knew? Those who seek joyful worship create a culture of joyful worship; and those who seek inclusion bring great capacity to welcome others.
Jesus asks us to be his body…his WHOLE body, not just a hand here, a foot there. Not just a head, and not just a heart. I’ve long wondered why ‘thinking’ progressive chruches tend to have dull worship, while more conservative, sometimes exclusive places know how to bring the Spirit. I think it comes down to this simple truth: as long as we only welcome some people into our midst, we will always have only SOME of the gifts that we need for ministry. You can take that to the bank and preach to any kind of church, anywhere. Because everybody is forgetting to welcome somebody.
Through the work of asking tough questions, this congregation realized that we didn’t have any answers. And so we let go of our plans and expectations, and told God that we would be ‘open…’ whatever that might mean. And God showed up. We might not be a big church, even now, but something is clearly afoot here (or maybe just a-hand? ha ha).
I share this, not to brag about the growth of my church when I know that others are struggling…but to share the truth that this, right here, is what people are looking for: an intentional community that loves God, serves others, and welcomes everyone; and lets go the sweating of the details. Our neighbors, of every generation, hunger for a place of welcome and inclusion that also knows how to throw down in worship; a place that values both the ‘head’ of biblical scholarship, and the ‘heart’ of Spirit-led community.
The balance between those parts cannot be perfected– in fact, ‘perfection’ somehow kills the whole ‘Spirit’ vibe. But we know this: in some sacred, miraculous formula of asking questions, while not demanding answers, new life shows up at the door. It brings its own baggage, its own broken places, and its own new set of questions…but somehow, something is added to the body, something is gained at the table, and we find that we are whole, after all.
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.