At a denomination meeting I saw a colleague. I said, “Good to see you.” He said, “it is better to be seen than viewed.” Part of the purpose of this meeting was to bring into conversation 4 different judicatories so that, because of the current situation, we might begin to discuss how to share some ministry. Based on the context of our encounter, I wondered if in some sense, the church today is not ‘seen,’ but ‘viewed.’ Is it, as the Spirit who spoke to the seven churches, who said to the church in Sardis, “These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead.”
No one will say that it is easy to be the church in these times. No one, at least, who has any experience in church leadership.
The days are long gone when there was a social undercurrent that supported the church culture and which promoted congregational life as a place to center your social life.
I would also say that now is a good time to be about the work of ministry. The Gospel and its resultant mission is as needed as ever. Folks define the purpose of the church in a variety of ways. H. Richard Niebuhr described it as “increasing love of God and of our neighbor.” We human beings always need to be worked on by this idea.
But in times when resources are stretched as tight as ever, the tendency is to wring our hands over declining revenues and volunteers, empty pews and weak programs. On this situation, Walter Brueggemann commented:
Old modes of power, old patterns of certitude – liberal and conservative – and old claims of privilege on which we commonly count are in deep jeopardy. In place of such power, certitude, and privilege, God is doing a new thing, the shape of which we cannot yet see. And not seeing makes us anxious, and then greedy, and then brutal. (Brueggemann, Walter Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope; Augsburg, 2000, p.36)
As I’ve been thinking about this, I have gotten a phrase in my mind, and I don’t know if I stole it or if I made it up. Still, here it is: “We do not grow by subtraction, but by addition.”
This applies in a variety of ways. We do not grow by seeking to (only) reach out to those who are in our congregation but absent for some reason. We do not grow by reducing opportunities and alternatives for worship and spiritual growth. We do not grow by reducing the opportunities for service.
Here then is the most dangerous reduction: We do not grow by reducing ministry so we can maintain maintenance. We grow by growing.
A dear friend told me that there was discussion in his congregation about eliminating two worship services on the Sunday after Christmas and going to one service. She said that there was a big reduction of attendance in the Sunday School, so that was cancelled, and the 10:30 service was a shadow of what was normally there. This scenario is familiar to most of us.
I wondered what kind of message the cancelations sent. Do they communicate that, “well, this isn’t that important, just sleep in that day.” If one service was kept and the other cancelled, does it say that one is more important than the other? If a new time is used, does it say that your preferred time for worship isn’t important? Someone once commented that because of small offerings, maybe a summer evening worship service shouldn’t be held. Is that why we hold worship services, to get money?
I understand that we are not called to be everything to everyone. That just isn’t possible. Still, it seems to me that churches who are on the downside of decline are partly there because they have forgotten what the point is. Institutional survival is not the point. Diana Butler Bass describes our situation this way:
Some things will cease to work, no longer make sense, and fail to give comfort or provide guidance. Institutions struggle to maintain only themselves, concentrating on their own survival. Political parties wither. Religions lose their power to inspire. But that only means we have work to do here and now – to find new paths of meaning, new ways to connect with God and neighbor, to form new communities, and to organize ways of making the world a better place. These are hard times, not the end times (Butler-Bass, Diana, Christianity After Religion, Harper Collins: New York, 2012, p. 31)
The end times, of course is when God in Christ returns to ‘set the world to rights.’ In the mean time, it means we have something to do. This is not so much kingdom building as it is participation in the kingdom here and now. I want to ask folks, “is there some part of the gospel you hear in our life together that you appreciate, strengthens your faith, connects you with God?” This is what is worth maintaining. This is the substance we invite others to participate in.
Throwing out beloved traditions and practices is not what I am talking about. In doing that, you suggest that there was nothing good about church prior to 2013. What I am talking about is allowing room for that “new thing” to find root and grow. I am not advocating adding things willy-nilly. This has to be a prayerful process of discernment. I say this because I believe God is calling us to a new day.
I say this is fundamentally about addition, not subtraction. It is about inclusion, not exclusion. It is about widening the margins, not circling the wagons. It is not about giving up central tenets of our faith; it is about inviting others in to join in our practices of worship, prayer, and service, way before they can give assent to a certain theological idea; and as they join us, we need to be open to the possibility that the Spirit is speaking through these new voices and, indeed, some things must change.
What this will mean for some of us mainline protestants is that we will need to take some resources that have been keeping bricks and mortar going and direct them into ‘boots on the ground mission and ministry.’ How important is a well manicured facility if the Spirit there is silent?
I do not believe that this cute little phrase will fix anything. I am quite sure, however, that subtraction will not be helpful.