I’ve never been one to dream while I sleep…or at least dream in such a way that I remember what I dreamt. Lately, though, that seems to have changed. I have been dreaming, and remembering my dreams. Last week I remembered two dreams, both of them about church.
In the first dream I was preaching from the pulpit, looking out over a sanctuary in which there were 5 people. It was our Calvary sanctuary, which seats 700 or so, so the empty pews seemed to be mocking me, all the while I was trying the best I could to summon energy through preaching to build a sense of life and light in the room. Of the five people in the pews, one of them was someone who extremely dislikes me (can you imagine?)—she was there in vivid color, wearing a turquoise blouse. The rest sat there bored, arms crossed, completely unengaged.
I woke up in a cold sweat.
The very next night I had a dream that I happened to walk into a church business meeting that I didn’t know was happening. As I walked in, surprised to see the whole congregation (more than 5 this time!) gathered in a meeting I didn’t know about, I could hear heated conversation about firing the pastor because the church wasn’t growing fast enough. I heard the age-old argument: we must have the wrong pastor if our church is not overflowing on Sunday mornings. If we could only find a better pastor, things would be fine.
I woke up in a cold sweat again.
They say that dreams reveal thoughts on a deep level of subconscious, and it doesn’t surprise me that somewhere, underneath frantic thoughts about what to cook for dinner and whether the bulletin is finished in time, I’m thinking, wondering, and worrying about the church. Perhaps this wondering is about Calvary in particular, but I’m thinking the thoughts are actually applicable to the church as a whole.
Things are changing in the landscape of the church in America, and we are right in the middle of that seismic shift. Case in point, a friend of mine who pastors a large church in the South told me just this week that for All Saints’ Sunday, their congregation called the names of fifty-six people who had died in the past year. Fifty-six people! We called the names of eight, but the proportions are probably similar. We’re losing people, faithful people, faster than we are replacing them, and this concern is, obviously, haunting my dreams at night.
But this trend is nothing new. It’s been going on for years and years, since before I was born. It’s part of a societal trend. And that begs the question: why the nightmares now?
I’ve been thinking a lot about why. I think it has to do, for me, anyway, with the realization that something elemental is changing. Life in church leadership these days is not an exercise in coming up with the next cool thing to draw people in, or preaching great sermons so people will come, or even building nurturing community so people will feel comfortable. All of those things are good, but I wonder if they are like trying to plug a leaky dam, all the while new leaks are sprouting faster than we can plug the holes. I wonder if there’s a whole new paradigm for doing church that’s right on the horizon, a completely new way to live our faith and express it as community? I am not sure what that is, but I suspect that it’s something probably counter-cultural and not so big, or rich, or popular as the church has been during my lifetime.
I suspect something like this is coming, but I can’t quite imagine what it might look like, and, true confession, just the thought scares me. It scares me so much, apparently, that I am spending my waking hours puzzling over it and my sleeping hours dreaming about it.
I wonder if the first disciples dreamt about these things, too. When they fell asleep in Gethsemane, did they even make it through a whole REM cycle? They surely had no idea what was ahead for them. They didn’t know what the church that was coming would look like…they didn’t even know it would be called the church. They had no idea their very lives would be on the line as they struggled to imagine what form the institutional Gospel would take after Jesus was gone.
Despite their missteps and, often, poor judgment, the Gospel continued. It was planted and it grew, and it has taken several big turns since then. I don’t know how they ever managed to get a good night’s sleep with all the uncertainty that surely plagued them.
But, taking the long view, I’d note that we’re still here. Disciples, struggling to imagine what the Gospel looks like in our day and time, are still here. And whether we’re here tomorrow and what we’ll look like when we are, well, that’s not really our worry, is it? The work of the church is the work of God, and we are merely agents in the change that must come as we grow and re-imagine an ancient message in new and fresh expressions.
I don’t know what’s next for the church. I don’t know what’s next for the church. I don’t know what’s next for the church. There. I said it.
I don’t know what’s next for the church but God surely knows what’s next. Surely God knows.
And, if I can just remember that, then maybe I can finally get some sleep.