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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Sheila Moment.

                  A small church I know cherishes a particular legend about how they began to turn around.  The church had been struggling and hemorrhaging members for several years.  They had attempted many of the usual conventional fixes, to no avail.  With little money left, and membership diving under 30, the future looked bleak.  The session went on a retreat to sort things out.  Part of the agenda for the retreat was to decide whether the church should close.
                  After a thorough and rather depressing review of the declining numbers in every category, an elder named Sheila broke the gloomy silence.  “I’m just going to call it,” she said.  “We’re done.  We are never going to be the conventional church we once were.  What if we just decided to be a small group of people following Jesus?”
                  I call that “the Sheila moment.”  It is a crossroads of promise most distressed and marginal churches never get to.  The majority of churches, if they ever do come to the realization that they are not going to be the institution they once were, proceed forthwith to a decision to close.  They don’t have any vision of what it means to be a church other than the memory of their institutional past.
                  In other words, marginal congregations have to realize that they are never going to be a “church” again, if by “church” we mean the conventional, pretty building full of young, ethnically homogeneous, well-dressed, well-behaved, intact families, with-a-full-time-pastor (with a wife and children), and a bustling Sunday School and lots of programs, where they worship on Sunday mornings for exactly one hour, sing traditional hymns, and hear uplifting sermons that never mention politics or economics.  And too many churches would rather not be anything if they can’t live up to that fantasy/memory.
                  It is the rare church that, when they hit the wall of viability, punch through it to a recognition of what a church really is in the first place: a small group of people following Jesus.  That vision is foreign to many Modern Americans on every level.                 
                  First, we have a problem with anything “small.”  It grates against our cultural prejudice that equates big with successful.
                  Second, we are suspicious of the word “group,” which inherently questions our individualistic bias.  Yet the movement Jesus begins is inherently communal and collective.
                  Thirdly, the idea that we are “followers” militates against our self-perception as independent, self-sufficient leaders. 
                  Finally, even “Jesus” can be a problem.  Too many Christians are ignorant of the Jesus who appears in the New Testament.  Instead, they seem to maintain a fantasy “Jesus” who is mainly a cipher for a particularly disturbed subset American culture.  That “Jesus” is a white, flag-waving, gun-owning, gay-hating, Capitalist.
                  Even if that overstates the case a bit, few churches think of themselves as small groups of Jesus followers.  Few can comprehend that it is possible to be a small group of Jesus-followers without the expensive and weighty institutional superstructure of buildings, clergy, budgets, membership, denominations, etc.  Few understand that this is precisely the kind of movement Jesus initiates.    
                  But I contend that churches have to do just this.  They have to clean out the centuries of clutter, grime, dust, and habits that have accrued to the church, and to the minds of individual disciples.  They have to get down to the bottom, to the essence of the church, which is simply… a small group of people following Jesus.
                  And it is the churches that are hitting the wall of viability that may be most likely to have this realization.  “Successful” churches have no incentive to change.  But it is our “failing” churches, the churches that have nothing to lose, that have amazing potential for actually becoming vibrant gatherings of Jesus-followers.  Because “failing” churches are the ones God cares enough about to bless with a vision of the simple, beautiful truth of the church.  It is these churches God visits and restores to integrity.
                  When I was a kid my parents were cleaning out our house.  Among the things chosen for the trash-heap was a small bookshelf.  It had been painted numerous times.  It was dirty.  The veneer was dried-out and cracked.  And it wobbled.  So my dad placed it at the curb in a pile of other junk for the trash collector to pick up.  The truck went by; the pile disappeared; we completely forgot about the bookshelf.  Until several months later, when our neighbor across the street showed up at the front door, offering us what appeared to be a beautiful new little bookshelf.  It was made of polished maple that glowed a warm brown.  It was sturdy and strong.  My dad recognized it immediately as the piece we had discarded.  He was flabbergasted!  Not just that the piece was salvageable, but at what the neighbor had done.  He rescued it from the trash.  He took it to his basement where he stripped off the layers of old paint, sanded varnished the wood, and reconnected the pieces with new, brass hardware.  Somehow he was able to recognize that, beneath the failed and rejected piece of furniture, was good, solid wood.
                  Then, amazingly, he returned it to us!  He refused to take money for his work!  He just smiled and went back across the street.
                  One of Jesus’ favorite Scripture passages is from Psalm 118.  “The stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone.”  It is the failing, rejected, marginalized, “unviable,” dying, even “ghost” churches that have the most potential.  But they have the vision and courage to get to a “Sheila moment.”  They have to let go of any expectation or desire to be big or successful by secular standards.  They have to not even want to be important, big, a leader, substantial, popular, influential, or wealthy.  They have to positively flee from even the possibility of becoming any of these things.  They have to let go of all that, and simply listen to Jesus and follow him.
                  I know, “let go” sounds pretty easy.  In reality it is often a matter of having all that old paint and grime soaked, burned, scraped, and sanded off, which is a very painful process.  The point is to get down to the heart of the matter: the pure and strong wood – maple, oak, mahogany, pine, walnut – that we are.  It is to gather around the Word in the power of the Spirit, to learn, to pray, and to share the Body and Blood – the life – of the living God.

1 comment:

Tom Blair said...

well said-

and it fits even 'big' churches- who think that by their size can with impunity ignore the call to be a small group, following Jesus.