This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Ghost Churches.


            A friend of mine once told me his theory about ghosts.  He suggested that ghosts are people who died, but don’t know they are dead.  (I seem to recall something like this hypothesis articulated in the movies, Poltergeist, and especially The Sixth Sense.)
            Setting aside the questionable metaphysics, it seems to me that it describes a lot of churches.  They’re dead but don’t know it.  They’re able to go through the motions of a kind of half-life, only barely and incidentally visible to their wider communities.
            Such churches are recognizable.  They haven’t changed very much over the years since they stopped relating to their actual world.  Notice the pictures on the walls.  Notice the hymnals.  Notice what translation of the Bible they tend to use.  Notice the architecture and the furnishings.  Notice the office and audio technology.  Notice the books in the library.  Notice the age of the worshipers.  If we find many of these indications that the place is caught in some prior decade, then we may be wandering through a ghost church.
            Ghost churches may be frozen in any decade, from the 1940’s (still remembering “the boys” serving in the Pacific and Europe), to the 1950’s (the mainline churches’ perceived “golden age” when the church was wealthy, popular, and influential), to the more recent decades of the Great Decline (where we see on the walls fading posters from old evangelism and stewardship campaigns).  Even if there are conspicuous displays of pictures from mission trips and fellowship events… from 3 or more years ago, we may be dealing with a ghost church.
            Ghost churches can be wedded to the organ, they can feature liturgies and vestments more appropriate to another time, or they are still going through the motions of ecclesial life (think Strawberry Festival and Spaghetti Supper) that haven’t been effective or meaningful to anyone in the wider world for many years.  Ghost churches also feature a lot of clutter and just plain trash lying around, probably because the people are not conscious of what it looks like, and certainly not seeing it from the perspective of a visitor.
            I know this sounds very critical and judgmental.  But my heart goes out to many of these ghost churches.  Often congregations descend into this state because of various kinds of trauma.  I mean, there is the shock of the cataclysmic changes going on in the world and neighborhood around them.  These can be factors like increased traffic, demolition of neighborhoods for highways, deteriorating air quality, a plague of ugly strip-malls, and other indications of a steep drop in the quality of life.  Then there are the effects of the 2008 recession, from which many churches are still reeling.  Or there could have been a debilitating crisis – perhaps a clergy sexual misconduct case, or an incident of financial malfeasance – and the traumatized congregation just got stuck, unable to process and move past it.
            A ghost church has to be confronted with the evidence of its death.  This is difficult because the congregation has constructed an elaborate scaffolding of rationalizations, explanations, and justifications for their condition.   They do not want to hear that they are dead.  Somehow someone has to hold up a mirror to demonstrate that they do not have a reflection.  The world only sees them partially if at all.  They are feeding on memories more than hopes.  They have no energy to change.  They do not grow.
            Facing this reality, a church may choose with dignity and grace to close the doors.  There is no shame in this.  Maybe something new can be seeded with its remaining resources.  It is better to cash it in, than to hold on to the dishonest, disoriented shadow existence of a ghost church.  Most ghost churches don’t even get to this point.  But I suspect that most churches that do finally face their own death choose this path.
            Yet we are people of resurrection.  The apostle Paul talks about how much it frees a person to have already in some sense died.  Anyone coming back from death in this way is certainly not going to be frightened or controlled by the fear of death.  For them, death is in the past and the whole future opens up.  The early church knew this, and instituted Holy Baptism as a sign of resurrection.  Jesus himself seems to have had an experience at his own baptism that was powerful enough to drive him out to the desert to process it.  Baptism is a ceremonial dying and rising, by which death is symbolically placed in a person’s past and the basis of their life relocated to God’s future, which Jesus reveals as resurrection.
            So, upon facing, recognizing, and admitting its own death, a ghost church may rise up with new life in this world, and accept God’s call and mission with energy and freedom.  Ghost churches, then, have to decide to take up that new life with enthusiasm and energy.  New life is not like the old life.  What emerges from this choice will look and act very different from the now former ghost church.  It will be as different from what went on before as an oak tree is from an acorn or a butterfly is from a caterpillar.  It is for all intents and purposes a new gathering of disciples.
            Such a metamorphosis may be demonstrated in such things as a new name, a new worship style and place, a new sense and statement of mission, new leadership, and a new identity.  That is, it will have a new story that lifts up and lives in and for the future.  Only in this way does a gathering of Jesus-followers become visible and real in the world.
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