It’s a hard time to be a traditional Mainline church. It feels harder still to be a traditional church in a part of the world that often feels not only indifferent to organized Christianity, but sometimes even hostile. Such is life in Central Maine.
At Old South, we struggle with many issues, having to do with money, the maintenance of our buildings, the appropriate level of staffing, and our diminishing attendance numbers. Yet, there are ways in which the church not only clings to life, but seems to thrive.
Much of the thriving is related to mission. In recent years, Old South has become an amazingly generous church. Most of this generosity is related to money, and donations to various causes. But, the church has also managed to maintain a commitment to a monthly (except in the summer months) dinner that is delivered to a local homeless shelter. And, we host an annual after-worship potluck that offers information and discussion regarding important local needs, like food pantries and homelessness. This fall, we are organizing a program on immigrant needs in the area.
Another aspect of our thriving mission is the Outreach Fund and the diversity of “causes” for which we gather funds. We helped quite a few people (some young, some not so young) attend the Maine United Church of Christ-related summer camp this season. We’ve also provided assistance to various local organizations that help a whole range of people like those who are incarcerated in the county jail, veterans who are hospitalized, and survivors of domestic violence. And, we’ve reached out much further, giving to disaster relief in faraway places.
In the midst of our mission and outreach, though, we cannot escape the reality that we are a dying church. Our attendance numbers are in serious decline (one Sunday this summer we had an all-time record low in worship: 15). We are facing difficulties in paying bills on a more regular basis. And, we are well-aware of our failure to keep up with maintenance of our two buildings– the large, stone, steepled sanctuary building and the parish house across the street, that contains offices, Sunday School classrooms, and a kitchen.
How do we hold these two things together– a shrinking, dying church community on the one hand and on the other, a church that maintains a strong commitment to mission and outreach? We are already witnessing the first tears at the fabric of what we have become as church. One person has asked why we are not looking at the Outreach Fund as a way of easing the church’s financial difficulties. Another person has expressed distress at our seemingly wanton disbursement of cash, when we are not adequately “taking care of our own”?
So far, we are managing not only to keep up our mission and outreach, but we have expanded that outreach. The voices that suggest otherwise have not gained any traction. But, I cannot help but wonder how long this situation will hold.
As we continue to shrink, we face increasing pressure and, as well, the unsettling experience of church that none of us, not even me, are truly prepared to face: a church that is such serious decline that its closing is now clearly on the horizon, and a horizon that is not far away. While we wrestle with what to do about our buildings, and how to maintain staffing, will we be able to continue to remain committed to mission and outreach?
It’s a stressful time to be church, and to be a shrinking church. Will we, as a group, be able to resist the temptation to turn inward and to view the church itself as “mission”? Will we, as a church, realize that without a commitment to mission and outreach there really is no point of gathering at all?