I recently wrote this post on my Facebook page: "Each day I read articles and posts about the decline of the church. I read the statistical information about what different ages want, cultural influence, relevance of message, and issues that are killing the church. These are definitely valuable and I read them regularly. They have certainly influenced my leadership. But I feel in my soul that there is more to the story. What I see is that often congregations are not getting real about their individual calling as a community. Unless a congregation does the work of talking about what it truly means to be a disciple, and then seeks to do the work, everything else will bring the church down. There is nothing more destructive than gossip, power plays, fiefdoms, and a social club mentality in a congregation. Our behavior in our communities does more to push people away than some of the issues regularly named.
I'm very proud of the Rockaway congregation for taking the risk to have tough conversations about the effect of past conflict and unhealthy dynamics. In the course of those conversations they also recognized how much they needed and wanted to grow in their own faith before they could share faith with others. These deep conversations created energy and after walking through the valley, led us to a hopeful place. Today our adult education program is at least 3 times what it was. As more adults are having fun and building new and deeper relationships, more parents of children are coming to church. Our children/youth Sunday school attendance went from barely 20 on a Sunday to having as many as 50 this season. We had a class of 14 new members last year and are preparing for another new class now. I'm not convinced anymore that people won't come to church.
People are often seeking a spiritual community, but they need to be able to trust the community and they want a place that is positive and effective. They will come if they find a community that is growing in their faith, sharing their faith with others, serving those in need - and in general, digging in and doing the hard work that Christ calls us to. Have we overcome all of the obstacles? By no means! But things are getting so much better. Recently a new family came to us and has become quite active in a short time. On Sunday a member of the family came to me after worship and said, "I love, love, love this church. It is actually FUN to come here for church and bible study." This church's experience may be unique, but I'm not certain of that. It seems to me that there is some biblical precedent that if one bears fruit, it will be visible, and rewarded. It seems to me that the Church slipped off the path. Getting on the path won't be easy and it may create a Church that doesn't look like it did in the past, but that's not our mission is it?"
Responses showed that this post resonated with people. The article in Presbyterians Today did too and since then I've been receiving emails from pastors thanking me for giving them hope. A couple thanked me for helping them to finally decide to take a chance on the New Beginnings process. Today I spent about 30 minutes on the phone with a pastor whose congregation is considering New Beginnings. There is one thing that I am consistently hearing - our church have become too inward focused and lazy about evangelism. I've also heard that conflict either on the PCUSA or local level has caused people to leave congregations. And we wonder why there is decline? We wonder why people don't want to join us?
I'm finding more and more support for my Facebook post position. Yesterday I was discussing this in a Bible Study at First, Rockaway. The group includes three of our small group leaders who are using the Engage resources. We were talking about how we are still peeling off the layers of preconceived ideas about what the Church is supposed to be, what evangelism is, and what they believe. We are still growing in understanding. One of the members said, "What we've learned is that we have to peel our own onion before we can get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple." That's it! Unless you peel the onion, you won't address unhealthy patterns of behavior that not only kill congregations, but pastors and members. Unless you peel the onion, you won't look at your own spirituality and whether growing your faith is a priority in your life. Unless you peel the onion, you won't open your eyes to see opportunities to reach out in service and love to people. Unless you peel the onion, you won't be able to be the person God wants you to be.
I'm becoming even more convinced that the Church can still be a viable ministry, we just have become too complacent. Our society has influenced it, our behavior has made it a reality. We have made ourselves, the traditions we like, our personal desires, and our misguided understandings the priority in our communities. We have decided it's okay to pick and choose which of Jesus' teachings and examples we should follow. We've boiled Christianity down to nothing more than something I can say I believe in, but not something that demands my life. We need to peel the onion. Some say we need a Reformation. Others say it's transformation. Still others say to not waist your time, the Church is dead. I say that the only thing that is dead is us. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. God is seeking to use us, but we are seeking our own desires. God is trying to touch our souls, but we don't take the time to nurture them. God is working in our communities, but we have refused to meet God there. In many ways the Church smells like an onion gone bad, wrapped in a skin that refuses to allow it to breathe, rotten and unused.
Will the Church survive? I have no idea, but I'm beginning to believe that if a community of faith truly wants to be faithful and is willing to do the hard, honest work of peeling back the layers of conflict, misunderstanding, laziness, and selfishness - the church might stand a chance. Once you get to the heart of the onion, you can begin to dream about the future and become open to the dream God has for you.
Last Sunday the lectionary passage was the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Five of them were busy tending their lamps, always ready for the return of the bridegroom. Tending their lamps would have meant keeping a long enough wick ready, trimming it when excess was causing too much smoke, and having enough oil ready to refill the lamp. If we are willing to tend to our personal faith: practicing Spiritual disciplines, participating in the congregation, attending worship, our lamps will be ready. And what purpose is a lamp if it is not lit and shedding light? We haven't been willing to share our light, we've kept the light under a bushel - "I can't talk about my faith, it's personal." But it's not! Your faith story is God's tool for reaching others. The story of a man with cancer who found strength through prayer can touch the life of another man with cancer. The story of a woman finding God through the support of her faith community can help another find the same.
There is hope for the church. There is hope for all people, if we remember the covenant relationship God has made with us. A covenant works two ways. We can expect God to do great things for us, AND God can expect us to do the things he/she has asked for. Christ invited us, who call ourselves Christians, to follow his lead and do as he did. It is far more than planting ourselves in a pew once a week, it is living a life that is open to being used in God's service. The real question is whether we are willing to do the work. Are we willing to peel our own onions?