‘Tis the season for church stewardship drives and, thus, clergy panic attacks. I suspect many diocesan health insurance plans see a spike in anti-anxiety medication this time of year, and for good reason. Funding congregational ministries is time-consuming and expensive, especially in shrinking congregations.
The latest news about mainline decline only fuels this traditional consternation. Changing demographics, empty pews, a crisis of relevance, worn-out evangelism methods…the list goes on and on. What to do?
I do think attending carefully to demographic studies and surveys, as well as the latest “best practices” about community organizing is important. But perhaps not quite so important as all the panic around it might otherwise indicate.
Theologically, I’m convinced that the Church is in the business of putting itself out of business. The mission of the Church, after all, is not the Church but the coming reign of God. Josiah Royce, an early-twentieth century philosopher of religion, urged us to look for “no triumph of the Christian Church.” He meant that the point of the Church is not the Church but that toward which it is supposed to point: The Beloved Community.
That said, what do we do in the meantime? In this “mean time,” what are we to do before the divine reign of the Beloved Community is a reality? There are many responses to that question that we all need to consider carefully. Here’s just one: stop obsessing about how many butts sit on pews.
That’s much easier said than done when bills have to be paid. But is that the only way Christians want to measure the effectiveness of their witness to the Gospel?
I posted recently about the tragic fire that destroyed a portion of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California. This church has been a beacon of Gospel hope to me in so many ways for nearly twenty years. While I’m torn, sad, and devastated by what that fire wrought, I’m also profoundly grateful for what it has inspired, not only in me but in the small community that gathers there, week by week.
The Rev. Este Cantor, the Vicar at Good Shepherd, preached a remarkable sermon a few weeks ago. The lectionary passages that week included the gospel story of the widow who gave all she had to the Temple while the wealthy gave only a small portion of their wealth. That is of course a classic “lectionary set-up” to encourage people to give more in stewardship season, to give “sacrificially” for the cause. Este didn’t go there. She went somewhere else that I found profoundly moving.
I share some excerpts here of her sermon not only for the hope she inspired among us at Good Shepherd but for the insights to be mined from it about the mission of the Church and how all of us might think differently about pledge campaigns in our congregations. Among those insights, I offer just two:
1. Beware of Institutional Survival
Este’s sermon reminded me of the late Walter Wink’s great insight about institutions: whenever any institution devotes more energy and time to its own survival rather than to its mission, that institution has become demonic. Este took that insight to heart with the familiar story of the widow’s mite:
If we listen to today’s gospel passage carefully, we are warned away from the common interpretation of the gift of the widow, that she is a virtuous model for the ultimate sacrifice. In the beginning of the passage Jesus tells us of the scribes, who wear their expensive long robes, and have the best seats in the synagogues, and who also devour widow’s houses. What is implied is that the true order of the Kingdom has been corrupted. Instead of supporting the poor, the temple is supported by taking every cent the poor possess.
Let’s be clear about that for which we are asking sacrificial giving. Is it only for institutional life-support or a transformed society, a new world? (If you’re clergy, don’t answer that question too quickly.)
2. Look Beyond the Pews
This is a truism worth repeating: We have no idea what our witness accomplishes. If we measure our witness to the Gospel by how many sit in our pews on Sunday morning we will likely miss what the Spirit is doing with what we offer. In the wake of Good Shepherd’s fire, Este offered this in her sermon:
In the midst of the shock and sadness, the chaos and the ugliness of cinders replacing objects of beauty, there have been the unmistakable stirrings of new life. Perhaps the most surprising response came when I walked the neighborhood to pass out a small flyer meant to thank our neighbors for their support and concern, and to assure them that we would rebuild. I thought I would be through in about an hour, but the first neighbor kept me for forty minutes! He couldn’t stop saying how much the church meant to him, how it was an “anchor to the whole neighborhood.” He wanted to know when we would have a fund-raiser and how else he could help us. Everyone I spoke with was greatly relieved to hear that we were going to rebuild. They gave me their contact info and asked me to keep them up to date on our progress. These were people who have never darkened the door of our church, except perhaps for a neighborhood meeting or a concert. It was as if they worship in this church in a different way. They were obviously very glad that we are here, doing what we do, perhaps even rejoicing that we make our spiritual offerings whether they are with us or not.
How, I have to wonder, is that experience captured in Pew Research surveys of religious affiliation and practice? Never, ever underestimate the witness of a building, a program, a sermon, a concert, a community meeting! What any church does cannot be measured by how many people sit in the pews on a Sunday morning.
Clearly, Christian congregations face enormous challenges today. Yet the Spirit of God is moving among all of us and doing things that we cannot now imagine or appreciate. I believe this from reading the Bible and from studying Christian history.
But I do all this peculiar Christian work for another reason as well: my worship experience with a tiny band of resolute “sheep” of the Good Shepherd who mourn the loss of their beloved physical space yet insist that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38).
That remarkable declaration of hope from Paul is the heart of the mission of the Church. Let’s reclaim it.