If you ever wonder what pastors talk about when we get together, the topics are, in no particular order:
-Church people. I mean, we don’t spill pastoral confidences, but we definitely talk about our people. It’s mostly good news. Mostly…
-Sermons; process, upcoming themes, recent triumphs and epic disasters.
-Kids (if we have kids) and how we balance the parent and pastor acts. (The answer is: just barely, most days).
-Which new tv show/band/book series has THEOLOGICAL SUBTEXT. We really nerd out for those.
-The future of the Church, big ‘C,’ and which of our colleagues we’d like to see in major world takeover rolls.
And finally, more specifically, the future of church, (little ‘c’) in our little corners of the world.
Yesterday, I had a long car ride with a good friend and colleague, and we ventured into our usual discussion about the transient nature of life and ministry in the suburban desert. This is not a small community where people have roots spanning several generations. At the same time, we are not really in an ‘urban’ area where people’s lives center around a few city blocks. We are the very embodiment of ‘sprawl.’ People whose home life and work life have a long commute between them; people who have moved to a bright and sunny place for retirement, or for the winter; young, upwardly mobile professionals who wander here for a transitional phase between college and grad school, or between grad school and the next big career move; people who spend a lot of time out doors, but spend maybe just as much time in the car; people whose connectedness to this place on the map is, at best, tenuous, and at worst, non-existent. While there are some desert ‘lifers’ in our congregations, for the most part, (as Alice said), “people come and go so quickly here!”
That means several things for local ministry. On the one hand, it means that nobody comes to the pastor and says, “my great-grandfather donated that (organ/rose garden/stain glass window) a hundred years ago, don’t you even think about moving it!” There is nothing fixed or permanent about ministry here, and some days–given the quickly shifting nature of ‘Church’ in our culture–that kind of freedom is a blessed gift.
On the other hand, it means that you’ll rarely get folks to a mid-week program or an evening meeting. Between soaking up all that sunshine and commuting to work and doing a good job of being retired–and/or, doing a good job of being a young adult with a social life–it is really a stretch to gather folks for a Wednesday night Bible study, a Thursday night choir practice, or a Sunday night anything. At least, not every week.
And then, of course, you have the obvious implications for community: at least once or twice a year, we lose faithful church members–sometimes whole families–to the next big thing; the next degree program, the next career move, the first baby that takes the young couple ‘back east’ to be near grandma. Sometimes, the work of ministry in this context feels like a revolving door. The good news is that new people are moving to the neighborhood all the time; the bad news is that those were ‘our people’ who moved out and left that vacant house and job for them.
Being preachers and all, my friend and I got to talking about the desert landscape as an apt metaphor for desert ministry. As he so wisely put it: “that’s how those big, tall Saguaro cactus survive out here; they’ve got tiny little roots.”
Most of the stuff that grows out here is basically weeds. Even if it’s a glorified, colorful, flowering weed… Sage brush and wild flowers and tumbleweeds (those are real); it is all just as rootless and transient as the people who come and go.
Thing is–those cactus know something. Some of those prickly, imposing, towering trees are hundreds of years old. Their roots might be shallow, but they are mysteriously, miraculously strong.
So here’s our challenge, desert church, and people of faith all over: in a world that moves quickly from one thing to the next; in the midst of a tumultuous time in history, when the language of faith is being re-written; in the midst of uncertain future and shifting trends in worship and financial crisis and the upending of everything we know–how do we make sure that our roots are strong, even if they are shallow?
If I knew the answer, I’d probably get a lot more sleep at night. I would probably, also, be a very un-interesting preacher. Because for my money, the best news of all comes from people who know how to wander, and are comfortable living with uncomfortable questions. In our time and place, the Church is called to root itself in the love of Christ, in the grace of God’s unfailing presence, even in transient times. If those roots are strong, they don’t have to be deep. What grows visibly, above the earth, can be as flexible and malleable as the people who come and go from our midst–ready for transformation, ready for the next big thing, and believing that something holy is at work–always–just beneath the surface.