Over the last several months I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the state of the church, especially the local church. At least around here, churches are struggling. The average age in the pews increases every year because we are not getting many young people to bring the average down. Many churches are stretched financially; pledge income is not enough to sustain the physical plant. While we urge our parishioners to be generous, we also utilize different strategies to cover the shortfall, such as:
- Lower personnel costs by reducing the hours of staff, including clergy
- Close the sanctuary in the winter and worship in a smaller space in the building
- Invading their endowment’s principal
- Develop new fundraising programs
I’ve read a lot of books, most of them good to excellent. I’ve attended workshops, also mostly very good to excellent. I’ve heard speakers. I’ve talked with colleagues.
We can turn the church around. We can be a vital institution for our communities. But we also have to acknowledge that there is no clear, simple recipe to revitalize the church. All that I’ve learned tells me that we cannot remain as we are if we are to maintain the shred of relevance we have in our communities. We have to change – it’s a given. But we cannot clearly articulate a succinct vision of the future.
We talk a lot about changing the church. We need to offer an extravagant welcome. We need to be a blessed church. We need to be a sanctuary in our community. We need to be generous. We need to bear witness to justice. We need to proclaim God’s radical, inclusive love. We need to …. you get the idea.
But what does all this mean?
Maybe we need to be Jesus? Doesn’t being Jesus sum up all those “need to be” statements?
I’m also wondering if we have things backwards? Why are we talking about changing the church when the church is us? Like the hymn, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place. The church is a people.” We should be talking about change in terms of us; each of us. It’s discipleship in Jesus Christ.
While Christian discipleship is following Jesus, it is far more than believing in Jesus. Christian discipleship is living in the way of Jesus. Harvey Cox wrote of it as, “a way of living that included the sharing of prayer, bread, and wine; a lively hope for the coming of God’s shalom on earth; and putting the example of Jesus into concrete practice, especially his concern for outcasts.” (Cox. The Future of Faith. Page 77-78)
Particularly as more churches have difficulty sustaining full-time ministry, we’re faced with sustaining the ministry of the church with less pastoral ministry. But maybe this is what we need in the church. Could it be that this is the opportunity for laity to recover the practices of the early church when there was no such position as ordained clergy? Might this be the time to renew Luther’s priesthood of all believers?
I think of the early church described in Acts when people lived out the Way as they understood it from Jesus. I’m also thinking of the Methodist churches in the early years that had to do ministry while the preacher was riding the circuit between churches.
I wonder if professional ministry has gotten in the way of forming discipleship? I know that seems odd coming from a member of the clergy, but have we (the clergy) assumed the tasks of ministry because we’re trained in this calling? We’re the “experts.” Has it become too easy for members of our congregation to say, “Pastor, lead us in prayer,” “Pastor, lead us in Bible study,” “Pastor, I only get comfort when you visit me.” Have we by our desire to serve (and maybe even a touch of feeding our egos) let our selves do the ministry of the church? Have we disabled the laity by assuming the tasks of ministry which everyone did in the early church?
Maybe we, the clergy, have to change, too. I’m not sure if our role as resident theologian is sufficient. Maybe we have to become intentional about our task “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12) More concretely, teaching the laity the skills of necessary for lay visitation or how to lead Bible study or how to pray and lead prayer groups. What about creating worship, writing sermons, and leading worship?
By teaching the laity these tasks of ministry, they move to an active engagement with their Christian faith. They gain the opportunity to grow in their discipleship and in so doing encounter with Jesus through their service. It can give real meaning to their faith, and perhaps give them the chance to experience Jesus in their lives.
As pastoral ministry is stretched, we have to adjust our understanding of ministry. Is it more important that the pastor do the ministry or that the ministry is done by the church, regardless whether it is done by the pastor or a layperson?