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Church Metrics and the Widow’s Mite: Butts on Pews

‘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.

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Matter Matters: The Fire in the Belly of Christian Faith

I’m a Christian for many reasons. Chief among them is the Doctrine of the Incarnation. But that sounds too abstract. Let me try to be clearer.

Every scrap, every jot and tittle, every tiny bit of matter matters in the grand scheme of divine reality, which includes everything, absolutely every tidbit of every last chunk of everything. Reflect on that in your own life and don’t stop when you come to something you think is trivial, silly, dirty, shameful, fleeting, self-indulgent, gratuitous, or unworthy. Everything matters. Matter matters, absolutely.

Or try this: ever stumbled on 40-year old baby clothes in the attic? Do you have a “junk” drawer full of ostensibly meaningless artifacts of a history about which no one knows anything? Ever find some photos that took you a moment to identify and place?

Matter matters. This peculiar grounding in matter for Christian faith came vividly to light this past weekend when the gorgeous and quirky little mission congregation where I have been affiliated since 1992 suffered a devastating fire on Saturday night.

The carpenter-Gothic gem of West Berkeley was built in 1878 and has lived through every earthquake since then, as well as 1960s Black Panther breakfasts in the parish hall, an MCC and an Ethiopian Orthodox congregation, Head Start and after-school tutoring programs, pioneering liturgies, ridiculously ambitious fund-raising schemes, scrappy communities of Gospel resilience and hope, and not a few moments when everyone wondered whether we would survive.

This fire is certainly not an end for Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, but yet another beginning. But that’s not my point here. I invite you to look at, contemplate, and reflect on the photo posted here of Good Shepherd’s interior post-fire.

This photo breaks my heart and it re-energizes my hope. That confluence of grief and hope sits at the very heart of Christian faith and it shines forth from this photo. Notice the Eucharistic Table still standing there, bathed in light from the opening of the (sadly, tragically, horribly) destroyed stained glass window of the Good Shepherd.

The stained glass was destroyed but not the light, and it shines on the Table. For more than a century – for 134 years to be exact – that Table has borne witness to a truly astonishing and peculiar claim: God brings forth life from death. That is the kernel of the Gospel. We don’t just remember the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus at that table. We remember as well the promise of new life, of resurrection – of bodily life. Matter matters.

Both must be proclaimed, both the memory of pain and the hope of life. The former without the latter leads only to despair; the latter without the former leads only to utopia (literally “no place”). Christians live in that peculiar space in-between, that liminal space between sensible despair and ludicrous hope. Christians place a table in that space, and we share bread and wine there.

Good Shepherd has stubbornly and gracefully provided a witness to that Gospel claim in countless ways over the last 134 years. We have done so very rarely with platitudes or slogans. Good Shepherd “sheep” have been diverse, coarse, down-to-earth, and nitty-gritty in their spirituality – precisely what Jesus would expect. (The now-destroyed Good Shepherd window bore witness to all of this in the wonderfully eccentric “sheep” portrayed in it; we’ll just have to reproduce and update those markers in that window’s next iteration.)

I was sorely tempted over the last few days to deny how deeply saddened I am by this fire. I didn’t want to grant that much significance to a building. After all, the Church (with a capital “C”) is not physical structures but people.

Of course that’s true, but there’s more. Places, neighborhoods, buildings, sidewalks, stained-glass windows, baptismal fonts, altar books, historical records, and linens – all these things matter. Matter matters.

I share here just a few of my own memories of why the Good Shepherd space matters to me and I invite you to offer your own memories of your own spaces that matter in the comments. Let’s create an online tapestry of why matter matters. Just a few of my hallmarks:

  • Baptizing my godson, Louis Peterson, at the font that stood beneath a lovely stained glass image of an angel playing a violin;
  • The baptism of Paula White under that same violin-angel; she was baptized as an adult, and she actually plays the violin;
  • The day when James Tramel was released from prison, where he had been ordained, and stood beneath the Good Shepherd window with his faith family;
  • The blessing of the union between the Rev. Kathleen Van Sickle and the Rev. Barbara Hill back in the 1990s – a service designed by the congregation and approved by the bishop;
  • Passing the latest newborn baby around the congregation during a service, as if the baby belongs to everyone – which is true;
  • Ringing the bell in the tower on the first anniversary of the 911 terrorist attacks with Berkeley Fire Department representatives present; that tower originally served both the church and the surrounding neighborhood as the fire tower (graceful irony – that tower survived this fire!);
  • Overflow seating in the tiny narthex on an Easter Sunday morning as the building itself tried its best to accommodate joy.

Matter matters. All these memories and so many more are firmly attached to the fading wood, the yellowed glass, the unraveling carpet, the warped floors, the uncomfortable pews, the wheel-chair ramp, the pulpit that so many preachers have gripped with white knuckles, the nails in the beams where Christmas greens were hung, the Easter flowers were draped, and the Pentecost banners were tied…

Yes, matter matters. But so do the memories, which no fire can destroy. That’s the Gospel. Nothing is ever lost. All is bathed in the light of promise.

I am not grateful for the fire; I am grateful for the way its grief has reminded me of what matters.

(If you are so inclined, we Berkeley sheep of the Good Shepherd could use your financial help. Go here to make a secure online donation)