The church in which I was baptized recently closed. Like so many churches, things must have got tougher and tougher, attendance lower and lower, the budget tighter and tighter. Eventually they couldn’t afford a pastor. Then they just stopped having worship.
I imagine some elder was unable to find a supply preacher one Sunday, so they cancelled. And then nobody cared enough, or had enough energy, even to gather anymore. There must have been a certain sense of “what’s the point?”
The church apparently hadn’t worshiped for months before the presbytery found out about it, sent in an Administrative Commission, and finally, formally pulled the plug. We have a procedure.
I had a strange sense of horror, when I heard this story. Like learning of a person who was left to die alone in a nursing home, while family and friends didn’t care enough to even say good-bye. Or worse, this would be like your mother had a heart attack and you let her lay unconscious and unattended on the living room floor until someone happened to hear about it and call the coroner.
Maybe, like the prophet Ezekiel saw in Jerusalem, the Spirit packed her bags and just departed the place. Maybe the people didn’t think there was any point to showing up after that.
It was the church of my grandparents. My grandfather was an elder there. He taught the adult class. My grandfather was a strong but gentle influence in our family. It was because of him that my dad, his son-in-law, heard the call, first to real faith, and then to ministry. That’s why I, the first-born grandchild, was baptized there, in Wood-Ridge, and not in my parents’ church, in Bloomfield.
Wood-Ridge is in New Jersey. It overlooks Teterboro Airport, and the skyscrapers of Manhattan stand clearly visible. There are like 20-million people within a 50 mile radius. How do you have the good news of salvation and healing from the Creator of the universe, and yet not manage to find among those 20 million people a dozen or so to gather on a Sunday morning?
I spoke to one of the church’s last pastors. He told me that the church was positively allergic to change. Maybe they were saying the same prayers and singing the same hymns as they did in 1955, when I was baptized there. Maybe. But, hey, I know churches that are still saying the same prayers and singing the same hymns from the freaking 5th century, and they still manage to stay alive. Thrive, even.
It’s not about relevance or up-to-date-ness. I know churches with praise teams and projectors and sermons about how to get along with your boss… that are failing. It’s not about that. It’s not about “getting with the times.” It’s about getting with Jesus Christ.
It’s about authenticity. And for people imagining themselves to be followers of Jesus, authenticity is about community. Because Jesus is about community. And in a community you don’t die, or live, alone.
That’s why the Trinity remains the core of Christian faith: God is a community. Jesus comes into the world… and what he comes into are actual families and communities. And his whole purpose is gathering together, like a mother hen, like a good shepherd, a new community. This community is in itself active resistance to an imperial polity that actively divides people against each other. The Christian message is, “We are not alone.” God-is-with-us. Emanu-el.
In Christ the whole creation is revealed to be one community, one interactive, interpenetrating, interconnected, organic whole, permeated and infused by One Spirit. We take care of each other, cultivating and cherishing each other and every element within creation. Encouraging and building up one another in God’s shalom.
Maybe if churches did that sort of thing, we wouldn’t be closing them. Maybe the Spirit would hang around for that.
Now I hear that the church building was purchased by a vibrant, diverse Assembly of God congregation. Once upon a time that would have disturbed me. I had this misguided brand-loyalty about being Presbyterian. My bad. Hey, it looks like the Spirit came back to the church in which I was baptized. Welcome home, is what I say.