Church Life, Matthew

Life is Not Fair

Whatever the injustice suffered at school or on the playground, when my children appealed to their stepfather, Pure Luck intoned, "Life is not fair."

He sometimes followed this with a Lurch rumble and headshake.

We hear a lot of rumbling in churches, no matter the circumstances. Someone always seems to feel others have an advantage. People want to turn the clock back to a simpler or more prosperous or less challenging or actually nonexistent past.

Yesterday in church we talked about, or I should say I talked about, the fact that we had no children in church. The subtext–this is the day Sunday School might well have started, but the Superintendent and her family have decided to look for another church, and this year the CE committee consisted of exactly one person, and he and his wife are doing the same.

It's normal for these things to happen during a transition, to some extent, but in a smaller church, every absence is noticeable. And one departure can lead easily to another, as there are no plans for Sunday School, and frankly few if any children to serve.

I gave my Word for the Young to the congregation, and after that, the lay reader spoke to us before reading the Genesis lesson. We've had our ups and downs before, she said, encouraging others to think the church will get through this and thrive once more.

Will it? It may be time for some later arrivals to thrive.

And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:11-16, NRSV)

This is the problem in many churches. On the one hand, when a new pastor is called, she is almost always encouraged to bring in new members, especially that desirable demographic, families with children. I remember being a new pastor and thinking, clearly, these church members miss their own families, who in this transient society must have moved away. But no!! Their families, almost without exception, lived in the area and did not attend any church at all.

What makes us think we can attract new young families or other people's grandchildren when church is not appealing to our own?

I remember bringing in 11 new members one year, a lot in an 84 member church, and being challenged to show them to one longtime member! Where are they? He actually asked where they were, because they were not visible to him. He wanted his own family in church, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. He didn't care about these other young people. They didn't "count."

Sometimes the problem is class, and sometimes it's politics, and sometimes it's just that we ask the pastor to restore what we can only bring back ourselves, if anyone can.

In church's with more money, you can go along like this for a long time before reaching a crisis. If you don't like the looks of the new folks, get rid of the pastor, and they will probably leave, too. Because believe me, they have received the message loud and clear if they don't matter to us. If we resent the attention they get from the pastor or the opportunities they have to do the leadership tasks that we perhaps don't want anymore anyway, if we complain that they don't fill the old groups and want to try new things, if we grouse and grumble the way the vineyard workers did instead of rejoicing that they wanted to be part of our community, they will leave. Then disaffected people, the ones who sit out a whole pastorate, can return and volunteer for a search committee and start the whole cycle over again.

Life is not fair, Lord knows. And until we get that message, until we clue in to the fact that God works in ways that we didn't learn at football practice or 4-H or Scouts, we will keep repeating the cycles that allow a church to spiral down toward death.

And we'll do it grumbling all the way.

6 thoughts on “Life is Not Fair”

  1. Insightful, as always. I had not thought about the “longing” for young families, children, youth in church to be the longing of their own children who are absent. And I agree, most actions of churches around youth issues do not match the words they profess.

  2. I am giving you a huge standing ovation right now! We are struggling mightily with these ideas at St Stoic.

  3. “God works in ways that we didn’t learn at football practice or 4-H or Scouts” — nice line. Nice post.

  4. It’s funny that the success of children’s and youth ministries during the baby boom years made us all think that the church success=big Sunday School. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But congregations sure put a lot of energy into trying to recreate that heyday.

  5. The DMin reading I’ve been doing says, in essence, that this is just the sign of the end that has been coming for a long time, an end that won’t seem to get here. Church will be a new thing one day – but until then, we pastor churches in grief in the midst of a painfully slow death, a death often of their own choosing.

  6. How’s this for a sermon title:
    “A Complete and Total Lack of Fairness”
    Seriously. It’s going on the board.

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