We’ve all got a story we’ve told too many times, right?
Mine is this: Once, there was a little church in a big desert. And it was dying.
The people didn’t really KNOW that it was dying, exactly: but they knew money was tight; that fewer and fewer people were coming to worship; and that most of their neighbors were driving right past them every Sunday to go to the megachurch down the street. They knew that there was no youth group, and nothing for children past the nursery. They knew that the mortgage they paid on the sanctuary was keeping them from being a generous mission church.
They knew things had to change.
But like most churches that find themselves in such a spiral, they were uncertain about WHAT to change. Was it the worship music? The location? The ministry model? Was it history that could not be undone, even if they wanted to?
Yes, it was all of that, in part. But maybe the biggest obstacle to this church finding new life was that they did not know they were dying. And isn’t that always the way?
The reason I tell this story religiously (literally) is because it has such a miraculous twist –because that church learned to live again. They tripled in size. They paid off the mortgage. They grew and found resources for outreach. They changed their ministry model and evolved from maintenance to mission. And it was something to behold. In this age of mainline decline, such transformation rarely occurs. Past a certain point of financial struggle, conflict, and general lethargy, there is often nothing a church can do to change its story. But this little church in the desert found its breath, its heart, its spirit again. And I was there to witness it. Because I was their pastor.
And here is why else I tell it again– because I can pinpoint the precise moment when everything changed. And it wasn’t a big influx of cash, or an innovative new program, or a viral Youtube video that flipped the switch. It was a single question, posed at precisely the right moment.
Knowing things needed to change, a group of leaders from the church started a visioning and discernment process with other congregations in our area that were facing some of the same challenges. And at the first gathering of that group, the facilitator asked us to discuss the following question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
We looked at each other– and all the lights came on.
This was new. We’d spent many a late night church meeting talking about how to reach out to the neighbors; how to generate more income; how to tweak our worship service and make it more engaging or modern… and on and on. We’d asked endless questions amongst ourselves about what we were doing, and how we were doing it, and whether we could change. But nobody had every asked us– what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
For the next several years, that question drove everything. And it everything changed.
Yes, I can look back and trace some other critical moments, like when certain new members or families showed up. Or the day when a cell phone company asked if they could pay us real money to put a cell phone tower on the property–followed by the day we spent some of that real money on a new website. Then there was the day we paid off the mortgage. And the day we started youth group again. And this other time when we brought a second pastor on staff (thanks be to God and hallelujah). Then there was the day the church named itself as an “open and affirming” congregation and put a sign out front that said all were welcome. These were all defining episodes in a larger story of transformation that unfolded over several years. But if I had to pick a moment when the trajectory of that church’s life went from downward to straight up- it was in answer to that single question. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
While that church was two jobs and two cities ago for me, they continue that good work of being unafraid. And even after all this time, I still hold up that story as the gospel of What Is Possible when a faith community leans into its hope and not its fear; when a church can face an uncertain future with courageous vision; when a story is rooted, not in how things used to or ought to be– but in what might come to life if we are brave, and open to the Spirit in our present time and place.
I tell this story again today because it offers a powerful testimony for the wider Church in this particular time. A global pandemic brings fear and anxiety, so many layers of uncertainty that we scarcely know which to address first. Our health and safety are on the line. Our economy is tenuous. Our education system feels unsustainable. The infrastructure of our governing bodies are proving more unstable every day. Our family and friend connections are being tested by physical distancing (or way too much togetherness in quarantine!). Not to mention our future plans, travel, career trajectories– all in question now. It is a scary time.
But. What would we do if we weren’t afraid? It’s time for the Church to ask itself this critical question, as we think about what we are going to do and be in the aftermath of all this. Because the short answer is, we have no idea what we are going to do and be after all of this. That particular unknown is the scariest of all. We don’t know. We can’t answer it. There are too many unknowable quantities. What resources will we have? What gatherings will be possible? How much will we have lost?
Who will we have lost?
It is utterly overwhelming. And so our default– as human people, and as human institutions– is to keep doing what we’ve done. And sometimes that is okay. Sometimes that’s our offering, and it’s also the familiarity that people need. A lifeboat in a choppy sea.
But pan out a ways- 3 months, 6 months, 2 years from now… and we may see that our old story is already over. Church as we’ve known it may not be possible, ever again. That sounds sad. That sounds scary.
But what would we do with that, if we weren’t afraid?
If we weren’t afraid… we might see that there is infinite resurrection potential in the liminal space of this crisis. We might hear an invitation to free ourselves from the expectations of the past. We might give ourselves the grace to try and fail a few times as we find what new thing we’re being called to.
I’ve heard this story before. And I’ve told it more than a few times. Because I’ve seen what miracles happen when this Body of Christ lets that one single, scary question drive us into the unknown.
If our old safety boats are already sinking…why not jump and see what comes to life in the open space around us? What is left to lose? Once we realize we were already dying… we might just find the courage to live again.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?