Over the course of my almost twenty-five years in parish ministry, I’ve accumulated a long mental list of the gaps that exist in my divinity school education—not simply courses that I failed to take, but courses that should have been offered, but weren’t, and should have been required for anyone thinking about parish ministry. The first gap that occurred to me early in my career and keeps popping up as an obvious absence in my vast treasure trove of knowledge is not some special niche of theology or period of Christian history. It is plumbing.
Theology, Church History, Scripture, Pastoral Care and Counseling, all are important subjects that a good pastor should take as part of a divinity degree. But, to be the pastor of a small church, one must also have other skills— things like plumbing, small engine repair (when the lawn mower or snow blower breaks down), accounting, electricity.
Through the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about another subject area that turns out to be woefully lacking in my divinity school experience: physics. In particular, I’ve been wrestling with a certain concept from physics—momentum. Now, I haven’t taken physics since high school (in college, I fulfilled the lab science requirement with geology, which is not at all useful in my work as a pastor). But I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum, which I’ve been reminded by the wonders of the internet goes something like this: momentum = mass x velocity.
Why have I been thinking about momentum? In Maine, especially among the old Mainline churches, we have a momentum problem. The momentum is moving against us, that is. It’s not just that not as many people go to church these days, or that the state of Maine has the oldest population in the country, or simply that Maine has the lowest percentage of people who self-identify as Christian (27% according to one survey). The problem we have is that the movement, the momentum, of community behavior is moving away from us.
In my brief refresher of momentum as a concept in physics, I was reminded that both “mass” and “velocity” are important. Take a large truck and skateboard moving at the same speed. The large truck has the greater momentum than the skateboard, even though they are moving at the same speed.
Where I live, in Central Maine, the momentum is with the non-church-goers. There are simply more of them—they have more mass—than those who do go to church. This is especially true among my own peers—adults somewhere around the age of fifty, college educated with good jobs, with children at home, etc. It’s not just that most of them do not go to church. There’s something much bigger, and more troubling to someone like me, at work.
Momentum. In talking to and spending time with my peers who do not go to church (and there are a lot of them) I’ve found a kind of movement in their becoming more distant from the church. There’s a few of these people who went to church when their children were very young, but now they not only don’t go, there’s a momentum to their distance from church—something having to do with mass and velocity.
I’ve been reminded in my little physics refresher of Newton’s first law of motion: an object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
This is an important lesson for pastors and church folk, especially in a place like Central Maine. It is simply not enough to try to employ new ways, or old ways, of attracting new people and visitors. We need to find ways of interrupting the movement—the momentum—that is moving away from us. This should lead us to very different ways of interacting with the community around us. Yet, my concern is that good church people have a hard time, and will have a hard time, with what is required to “interrupt” the momentum that is moving away from us. Mainliners tend not to be interrupting kinds of people.
But, if we care enough about what our faith and our church mean to us, we are called to understand and appreciate the dynamics of the community in which we live and exist, even when what’s happening is not what we would wish. The momentum is moving against us. That is our challenge.
If the love of God is what we say it is, then we should accept the grace and the courage to respond and to be the kind of interrupters that we must be in order to share the good news of God’s love and hope, for us and for all people.