In those moments when I allow myself to consider my most worrying concerns about the present and the future of the church, I often think about one particular couple I know. Whenever I think of this couple, I cannot escape the notion that the church is doomed, at least in its current form. And more than that, I wonder about what it means to pair the words “doomed” and “church.” When a local church closes, for instance, is it similar to a business that ceases to exist or does something else happen? Can something else happen?
This particular couple that bring such despairing thoughts is a pair of people who were once quite active at Old South. Now, they are Christmas Eve and Easter people. To be fair, they are a bit more than that, as they don’t just attend worship, but participate in the music program, including the rehearsals leading up to Christmas Eve and Easter worship. About five years ago, I bumped into them at a non-church function. They shared with me their story. They loved their years of active service and connection to Old South, but one of my predecessors had driven them away from more regular, active involvement. They couldn’t quite give it all up, so they continued to be involved in the music of Christmas and Easter. Through my early years serving Old South, they came to feel much more positive about the church. They liked that the church had become “Open and Affirming.” They found that they liked the worship leadership I provided for Christmas Eve and Easter. They liked my preaching and they liked what they were reading in the church newsletter.
All of this renewed good feeling was leading them to consider coming back more often to attend worship. They were thinking that, maybe, they were ready to be more than Christmas Eve and Easter people. Since this conversation took place though, about five years ago, I have not seen them even once outside of the their annual, music-related visits to Old South.
I wonder: if we cannot lure this couple into the fold, how will we be able to lure anyone? This couple likes what they experience at worship. They also have that big important piece of church involvement: friends. They know the church, obviously—how to get to it, when worship is, what to expect. Yet, they just cannot move beyond the commitment they’ve held since one of my predecessors chased them away with a more conservative theology.
And, beyond just thinking about this one couple, I cannot escape thinking about what it all means for Old South, and churches like it. Are we doomed? Will we eventually, inevitably close? What does that mean for us, for the church, for God’s presence in this little part of the world?
How do we experience and live the promise of new life of the Gospel as we consider that our future may very well involve a smaller group of people not worshipping in our beloved building? For a church like Old South, will new life feel in any way connected to our old life—in our buildings, the church organ, our staffing? How do we prepare for the possibility that we will need to let go of our buildings while still hanging on to our identity?
This last question is the one that I wonder, and worry, about the most, because I think it is connected in a very important way to my job. In what ways can I help inspire the transformation of a group of people to seeing themselves as part of something that goes way beyond the buildings in which they gather?
For pastors like myself, this is where the subtle and not so subtle conversation and leadership must find a home, and where we must find ways of inviting grief and even anger. Not an easy task, especially when people want to come to church to feel good.
Ultimately, I believe that the church as a group of people that gathers in a building with a tall steeple with an organ, etc., is doomed. Yet, I remain hopeful—sometimes even despite what I experience on a regular basis at church—that the church is capable of opening itself to the transformative grace of Christ, and has the capacity to see itself as the embodiment of Christ on earth even if it isn’t connected to its beloved building. Though hopeful, I am aware that this transformation will not just happen, nor will it happen without pain and deep heartbreak. Nor will it happen without recriminations hurled at the pastor. Time to strengthen the inner armor and focus anew on the work of the Gospel, which really doesn’t have anything to do with buildings, but setting free the abundant love of God.