Church Life, If I Were Preaching

Whither church?

Yoda stone  I picked LP up after school today and we drove to the dry cleaner, then drove on to Evergreen Cemetery to take Sam for a walk. 

We saw a newish grave marker there with an image of Yoda, practically "life" size Yoda, on it.

On the way home we drove past a Baptist church that has, for the most part, closed its doors. I used to go there for meetings of an ecumenical board. I liked the administrator a lot. I worked with the pastor to try and help keep the Protestant chaplaincy board going. The church is right down the street from my first call, Small Church, a church I left because they had no endowment to draw down the way the Baptist church would do for him.

He is gone now. The church looks abandoned. I found their blog and learned they will have a prayer service soon and are planning an Easter service. But they admit that they don't know where they're going, if anywhere. 

Are those Baptists now in exile? How will they sing the Lord's song?

I don't know. 

I'm not sure how solid the UCC churches in my small city are. I mean, I have some suspicions and a modest amount of information, but no real clear sense. I'm not reading the financials, even for the one where I hold membership. I just know there are difficulties all around. Four UCC churches, do we really need them? 

The Baptist church in such difficulties stood up for the most liberal Baptist church in the area when their Association wanted to boot them for being open to LGBT people. The Baptist church in difficulties threatened to leave if Most Liberal Church lost standing. They took a congregational vote to stand with their brothers and sisters in Christ. I thought that was pretty awesome. Baptists all used to be about local autonomy, and I am one of theirs, originally. They stood up for a principle.

And this is their "reward," running out of money, closing their doors, mostly. 

It might be the tendency of someone on the other side of that issue to make the case that they are being punished, that God is letting this happen because of their stance, some crap like that. There were people who felt that way about the Galileans and the people at Siloam, too. 

But the truth is we live in a world where the religious symbol on a grave marker is Yoda, where the hot topic is Chat Roulette, where things are both getting better and getting worse at a pace so frenzied it's hard to know where to look next. 

Jesus gives us a fig tree to ponder. He slows us way down, has us stop thinking about the headlines or the rumors and asks us to consider something that seems mysterious, puzzling, even pointless–a fig tree that is not producing. I've preached that story twice, or rather I mined the first sermon to get the second after spending the week ill with the flu. But I remember doing the homework to try and understand the parable, to get clear about what in the world Jesus might be getting at. Oh, I'm guessing we are the non-producing trees. That seems apt enough. We're disappointing by our very nature, to ourselves and others.

Do we have another year, to spread manure around, to try and grow something nourishing, something that makes people want to come near and experience us?

It's on my mind tonight.

***This is not the Yoda stone we saw. I would have taken a picture, but since the family had left Valentine's tributes, it felt intrusive. This Yoda was on the Internet already.

9 thoughts on “Whither church?”

  1. Wow, Yoda on a grave stone!
    Episcopal churches are in the same fix. In the Diocese of Vermont there are only about 10 churches with full-time clergy. In my current area, there are more Episcopal churches than there are people to fill them; those with endowments are hanging on, and those without–well, some of them will likely have to close sooner rather than later.
    Lately I’ve been asking myself, “Why would anyone who is unchurched but perhaps ‘seeking’ something come to our parish?” It’s a question I think the whole parish needs to ponder.

  2. Getting right to the important bit ;-): That Yoda looks like a Cabbage Patch doll with pointy ears.

  3. I haven’t read it yet, but in the current Down East magazine there’s an article about the growth of evangelical churches in Central Maine. The teaser (or whatever you call it — like a soundbite in larger type in the middle of the article?) was something about finding a ready-made community. Maybe the article explains why folks are not finding that ready-made community in the existing churches? Sisterfilms thinks it may be a class thing (not necessarily just in Maine, she is always pointing out class assumptions she sees in her home church)and that may be true (or at least what folks believe to be true) for UCC and Episcopal churches, but I wouldn’t think Baptists would have that problem in the North. In the city, even a small city like Portland, changing neighborhood demographics and failure to adjust to them may be at fault also. This is a bit discouraging as my daughter seeks her first call, burdened with student loans.

  4. I hear from my hairdresser that the Vineyard church in central Maine has been very actively engaged in expanding. I think the difference is they’ll take the risk on sending people out to form satellite communities. We’re so enraptured with our buildings, we would be unlikely even to think of it.

  5. We’ve only been able to afford a part time priest for years now, and he was appointed Priest-in-Charge back in 2007. He will stay on as our Interim now (by special permission of the Bishop), but truly, I can’t see how we’ll attract a permanent rector only having the small financial assets we can offer. Heck, we don’t even have a paid administrative assistant any longer. It’s a new day for sure, and we’ll all have to redefine how we “do church.”

  6. It’s hard to watch, isn’t it; these churches imploding… and over such issues, too. At the same time, we know there’s a hunger out there, for what church sHOULD be offering — connection, community, prayer, hope, food for the soul. Somehow the structures we created lost sight of their charge; not sure how to get the trust back…
    Mentioned you in my blog today; take a look!

  7. The fact that you can Google “yoda gravestone,” which I assume you did, and get at least one image, is blowing my mind.
    Yup. Diocesan convention today. As was pointed out by a few articulate folks, we are spending time (and money) fussing over what people do in bed. I looked around at all those delegates and wondered how welcomed I’d feel in their churches? (or in mine for that matter…)

  8. Two comments: The fig tree story has always puzzled me, and I’ve heard several sermons about it, none of which resonated. What resonates for me now? Your line :”Oh, I’m guessing we are the non-producing trees. That seems apt enough.” How come nobody has made that point to me before?
    Second comment: We have 2 UCC churches in our town of about 5000 people. In fact my church was a “church plant” by the other church back in the 1840’s. Some of the leaders of that literal First church recognized that a second church was needed to meet the needs of a burgeoning mill community whose residents couldn’t reach the existing church 2 miles down the road. Now we’re both struggling churches and some of us want to think about merging. What’s stopping us? Years of separateness due to perceived class differences (the “rich” church v. the working class church), politics (the conservative church v. the liberal church), etc. etc. Oh, and the buildings of course — I’m tired of teaching our children that the “church ” is not a building, it’s the people, when for too many of us it IS the building!!

  9. Deb, the trouble for us old school Congregationalists is that we won’t take advice from “above” or outside. Our Conference ministers won’t take the initiative for probably sensible reasons to tell us to merge, for Pete’s sake!
    The important question is this: what is God calling us to do and be in this time and place (yours or mine)? The answer will certainly make the logistical details come clear, but we try to do it the other way around.

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