When Hope Is a Problem

An area church similar to Old South recently came to the end of a long journey through which the church seriously considered its future. Part of the process focused on the building in which the church meets. The church, decreasing in number as most, if not all, Mainline churches in this part of the world, examined a number of choices regarding its relationship with its building and the possibilities of leaving, or sharing, its building.

In the end, the congregation received a remarkable offer. If they donated their organ to a local college, the college would allow the congregation to worship in its chapel, free of charge, for ten years. An offer too good to refuse?

But, the church did refuse it. When it came time for the congregation to make a decision, it voted to remain in its own (large) building. The vote was relatively close, but the decision to stay was certain. The number of people who gathered for the meeting numbered, in total, just over sixty.

As the clergyperson for a similar congregation not far away, I worry a great deal about what will become of the church I lead. While I don’t know everything that happened at the area church that rejected what seemed like an offer dropped from heaven itself, I know that buildings mean a lot to mainline church congregations.

And, perhaps even more than that, is the problem of the “hope springs eternal” mentality.

Lots of good, faithful church folk cannot free themselves from the notion that things will change, that the tide will turn, that all they need to do is hang on and something will happen that will propel people back into these churches. Hope springs eternal.

Hope may be just the thing that will kill us for good.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, despite the best efforts that have come to nothing (or not much), despite the avalanche of studies, good church folk have a very hard time letting go of the hope that the forces of nature and human behavior will somehow miraculously alter, and that the old mainline will be alive again, with lots of young, intact families and people who love to participate and attend meetings, and worshippers who crave traditional worship with a burgeoning organ carrying the tunes of hymns heavenward.

Hope is a problem.

In a place like Central Maine where secularism reigns and where most church-attending Christians prefer the arena platform with ministers in jeans and a Christian rock band, it’s a real problem that lots of Mainline church folk can’t seem to understand the basics of human behavior, and physics. While there’s a slim possibility that the tide might turn, the tide isn’t likely to change. While there’s a shred of possibility that human beings may begin to behave differently, it’s exceedingly remote.

For churches like Old South, the challenge will be to let go of that “hope springs eternal” mentality and to learn to be the best church we can be, for the time we have left to be church. In so many ways, in its worship and in its mission and outreach, Old South lives out its faith in meaningful, strong, and wondrous ways. Old South is a vital church. But, it’s small and getting smaller and likely to get smaller still.

When Old South folk look around, it’s hard not to feel small and insignificant, especially surrounded by such a large building. It’s also hard to escape the word “failing”—despite the various ways that the small group lives out its faith. Still, there is the unmistakable undercurrent of hope, the almost tangible belief that something will happen to make the congregation grow.

Hope may be just the thing that will kill us.

And, that will be a terrible thing. For churches in decline, old Mainline churches with our old-fashioned worship, the challenge will be to allow a different calculus to be our guide. After all, there’s nothing scriptural about churches needing to be big. Churches and the Christians that are part of them are to be faithful—sharing the love of God with reckless abandon. Faithfulness is how we measure who we are and what we do. Faithfulness is what matters to God.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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