I realize that people become more conservative and institutional as they get older and more part of an institution. So it is hopefully not out of that place that this blogger, who led the conversation about the Call To Action and continuing critiques of church metrics, says the following:
I know. By all rights, I should.
- The article has great lines like “Your church already has a Savior and it’s not her” and “The way to resurrection goes through crucifixion. When Jesus told you to take up your cross and follow, did you expect it to lead anywhere else?” and ” if you commit yourself to all this and still feel like it was a waste of time in the end, then maybe your church really needed to die.” Those are awesome.
- The 14 people who shared it on my Facebook friends list are people I love and agree with often. 180+ comments are usually asking to repost it and print it in their bulletins.
- The rest of the author’s blogs and posts are terrific so it is indicative of deeper thoughts on the Christian life.
- Lee uses female pronouns when talking about the hypothetical clergyperson. WIN!
But I don’t resonate with it.
Let’s deconstruct the argument point by point (including some of the author’s expanded points in the comments).
- First, Lee reflects on the first thought that usually enters the church’s HR committee: “will this person grow our church?” That’s their expectation of the clergyperson.
- Second, Lee launches into the pastoral duties…none of which have “growing the church” as their intent or effect. They are all listed as the activities that the pastor does.
- Third, Lee makes the turn: nothing a pastor can do will grow the church. Growth is up to the Holy Spirit, salvation of the church up to Jesus Christ. He lists everything that a pastor can do, and it involves offering opportunities and challenges.
- Finally, Lee states that “A growing church is a dying church.” Theologically, if the church isn’t trying to let the image of the old church die, then it cannot grow. It must let the old church die so that the new one can be reborn.
- And as a last punch, Lee says that if a church does everything that the pastor says and they still felt like it was a waste, then their church needed to die anyway. BOOM.
After reading and conversing about this article for a while, it came to me that there’s an assumption in this article.
The assumption is found in these lines:
- “No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to back to its glory days.”
- “Those who stay won’t fit in with the old guard. They won’t know about how you’ve always done it. They’ll want to make changes of their own. Their new ideas will make you uncomfortable.”
To Lee, the “good” form of dying is not the church dying. It’s the church traditions. It’s the way “you’ve always done it” and the “glory days” where the church programs matched their context. To those that see the church’s “what it does” as a corporate whole, then yes, change in an increasingly secular society can feel like the church is dying. And if the church doesn’t want to separate from those traditions, then the church probably should die. The half-life of discipleship and church ideas can take effect (See the What the Church can Learn from Wikipedia article on this topic).
My complaints are twofold.
First, I’ve perhaps been blessed by HR (SPRC in Methodist-ese) members who ask “will this person be a good fit” rather than “will this person grow our church?” Thanks to our connectional system, they don’t hire people based on their fruitfulness but they question and check if their assigned pastor is a good fit. To those people, they are less concerned with growth than they are about honoring who the church is and what they need. And given that they are often privy to the sacred cows and the personality conflicts, they want a clergyperson who will break the traditions and do everything that the church as a whole don’t want them to do. So the guiding question does not match with my experience as the HR committees often have a stronger awareness of the church trends that need to die. I recognize that Rev. Lee is from a call system, not a connectional system, so his experience is likely different than mine.
Second, I agree that there are some traditions that need to die. No drinks in the parlor. No children in worship service. Always doing a bean supper (gross!). No politics in the pulpit. Endorsement of sports teams’ success from the pulpit. No women in the pulpit. No gays in the choir (good luck with that). If those traditions outlive their context, then the church that holds tightly to them will probably die.
But in our United Methodist Church, we have strong traditions. Even though I’m an iconoclast in many things, there are a ton of traditions that ought to continue:
- Women: Should we hope a church that celebrates women in the pulpit dies in the face of Mars Hills, Southern Baptists, and Catholics that steadfastly refuse women’s leadership?
- Variety: Should we hope a church that holds radical difference in their members’ theology and ecclesiology dies in the face of a culture that celebrates extremism and denigrates compromise or affiliation with unlike minds?
- Connectionalism: Should we hope a church that tithes money to meta-church agencies that turns them towards mercy and justice dies in the face of non-denominational churches that take tithes but do not practice it as a church?
- Grace: Should we hope a church that preaches prevenient grace given before we know dies in the face of works-righteousness and word-faith traditions that are growing but only as shallow pools of believers without the depth to respond to a changing world context?
In short, I’m uncomfortable celebrating cultures that are iconoclasts of tradition, and instead of adapting to church traditions they abdicate their responsibility to perpetuate the good traditions.
So as we celebrate “a dying church” I don’t want these traditions to die with it. Yes, a small struggling church in a rural community, we may want to close that church so that we can increase the apportionments to the bigger churches who can afford it. But having been in a rural community where I was the only clergyperson working with youth who was “safe” for the gay kids and the bullied kids and the girls who had had abortions to talk to, that presence is necessary to continue that United Methodist tradition in that town. I know it in my heart.
So as we celebrate “a dying church” I don’t want to abandon churches to the wolves. There’s a church one of my clergy friends was telling me about that was supposed to be “supplied” by the annual conference but they never got a pastor. Laity have had to keep the pulpit filled, and the District Superintendent who was supposed to come monthly for Communion has never showed in 4 months. It probably isn’t an efficient use of their time, right? Money is being poured into “new” church starts but very little (other than threats) given to renew established churches. It’s frustrating as we celebrate a culture of newness rather than an honoring of tradition…and this article is one symptom of it.
Tradition is important and it should outlive our churches. Churches will die. Some church should close. Some churches should close but by some reason survive and thrive again. But if we celebrate throwing out the tradition bathwater, I fear we lose what makes our churches unique too. If we become okay with abandoning church traditions and mission fields, then what will happen when we hit on the traditions that you care about?
Perhaps this article is indicative that we have a strong theology of success, but not an adequate theology of failure. At both the local and the global church levels. Hmm, maybe a future blog post?
Thoughts? For those of you that retweeted and shared this article, does any of this make sense? Thanks for reading.(Photo credit: “Dinosaur” by shvmoz on Flickr, distributed under Creative Commons license)