The Maine Conference United Church of Christ is the midst of implementing a new governance and staffing structure. I recently attended a meeting of the new Mission Council, which is intended to serve as the leadership council of and for the Conference. This new 12-member Mission Council is full of thoughtful and devoted Maine United Church of Christ members, with lay and clergy people who know the conference and are committed to its future.
But, that doesn’t mean they (at least a few of them) don’t drive me crazy.
During our recent meeting, only the third meeting of this new group, we started to talk about the joys and challenges of being the church in the twenty-first century. No surprise, but the conversation turned quickly to just the “challenges,” and then from there, out came all of the same old story, the same old refrain, of what’s keeping people from our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings:
• Sunday sports practices and games
• the competition we face on Sunday mornings
• “It wasn’t like that when I was young.”
• “Why can’ they leave Sunday mornings alone?”
It takes a lot of effort for me not to scream when I hear the same old parade of “woe is me/us” scenarios. It’s one thing to hear such things at the local level, especially among the older members of an individual local congregation—who can really blame them for feeling that the world has completely changed? But to hear all of the same, sad, sorry, tired old refrain from leaders in the church, well that’s especially frustrating, and heartbreaking.
If we can’t figure out how to sing a new song, we are just continuing the death spiral. If we can’t figure out how to look at ourselves and listen to ourselves, honestly and deeply, this isn’t going anywhere. We might as well start the dirge and plan the funeral.
At meetings such as the one I attended, I wish I could record the litany of woes and then make them listen to themselves. One of the dimensions of this same old list of miseries, is the curious notion that these people somehow have failed to appreciate: If the only reason that people came to church in the 1950s and 60s is that they had nothing else better to do, what does that say about us? What does that say about our church?
No one is forcing or coercing people to take their kids to sports practices on Sunday mornings. There is no state law that people must go to brunch and read the New York Times instead of attending Sunday morning worship.
It is absolutely critical for us to understand that people, in their free time, do things that are meaningful to them. And, for lots and lots of people in the Northeast especially, meaning is no longer found in the church.
That’s about us, not them. We need to adopt a new song, and rediscover our reason for being, and then to spread the news—knowing full well, and accepting, that we exist in an environment where many things compete for attention. And, that’s good for us. It may not feel that way, but this is good for us.
We need to figure out why we have stayed connected to the Church, why it holds meaning for us, and then to find new ways of spreading the news—instead of relying on societal and cultural pressure to do the work for us. When we rely on society to help us out, we become lazy evangelists. And, more than that, we become disconnected from why we remain committed to the Church.
We need to stop singing the same old sad song, and learn a new one—a song of the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the abiding and trustworthy strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We need to find the courage to let go of the fifties and sixties, and the grace to say boldly, “Goodbye and good riddance.” We are on to something new, a new song.