Sometimes I get to the point where I’ve had enough. I’m done. I just want to walk away, not look back, and shake the dust off my feet.
I’m talking about the church. On the one hand, I would not be where I am today without the church. It’s my home, especially this church called the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Try saying that five times really fast.) It’s my family, and as I’ve said before, to disown my family would be in a significant way disowning myself.
But… ugh… does it have to be so hard??
I was given my first church appointment in 2001, and since then I have served 4 congregations as pastor. I have worked with many more as a consultant and coach. In every situation, I walked into a declining congregation, or a congregation on the verge of decline and was charged with helping them to grow.
That’s the expectation. Grow the church! Bring more people to Jesus! Help the church get healthier!
Since 2001, I have taught, preached, coordinated, planned, visioned, pleaded, and even cajoled congregations to do what it takes to grow and thrive. I’ve read books and attended countless seminars on how to lead the church towards revitalization.
Nevertheless, aside from some anecdotal instances here and there of bold, Holy Spirit-led effort and times of growth, I can’t say that I left any of my congregations noticeably numerically larger or more financially solvent.
There may have been marginal instances of numeric growth, and there was always expansion in other areas than the number of people in the pews, such as the renewal of dying ministries, new, more diverse leaders, a new worship service, and new missions. Yet looking at the big picture, I still feel like I left those congregations in their trajectory of numeric decline, no matter how hard I worked to bring about the kind of change necessary to reverse the patterns I inherited.
I’ve known all along that everything always boils down to the heart.
Who do we love? What are our motives? Who or what do we trust? What are we willing to do to love and include people? What are we willing to give up? How receptive are we to change? What do we really want, and can we be honest about that?
All this came to a head recently when at a Church Council meeting someone asked the question, “What can we do to get more people into the church?” As soon as the question was asked, I inwardly groaned, and then braced myself for what was to come. Slowly, the tension and frustration began to rise in the room and within me. And then the same kinds of playbook questions got asked:
“Why don’t we do [this and that] anymore? That used to work.”
“That church down the street— they do [this and that]. Why aren’t we doing that?”
“We need to do things to get the young people here. How do we do that?”
“If we don’t grow the church, how can we keep solvent?”
“If all you do is focus on those outside and don’t pay attention to the folks inside, you’re going to lose the people we’ve got. And they pay the bills.”
So… after 20 minutes of spinning our wheels over questions we can never answer, I tried to make the case I have repeatedly made: we’ve got to get ourselves out of the “attraction” mindset, worrying about trying to attract people to our worship services and our events. That’s not to say that we stop trying, but we’ve got to accept the reality that a growing majority of people just aren’t interested in Sunday morning religion and church life. So we must focus our efforts on going to our neighbors and relating to them where they are, as they are. Don’t go with a self-serving agenda. Just go to love, bless, and be community with them.
I was met with blank stares.
Of course, I get it, and I can’t really fault them for it. The kind of “missional” mindset and behavior I’ve been espousing by no means resembles the way we’re used to thinking about church. For so long we lived with the expectation that if we build it, the crowds will come. Advertise the event, and folks will check it out. Hang up the welcome sign out front, and people will come. Yet that’s not the world we live in anymore, and church folk are having a hard time accepting that.
As expected, the whole discussion went nowhere.
And there I was, once again beating my head against a church wall, something I’ve done far too many times now. My head is aching, my heart hanging heavily. Trying with all the wisdom and creativity I can muster to change the culture and heart of the church, I’ve come to see that I simply cannot do it.
That leaves me with four options: 1) Keep trying new tactics and strategies to bring about change while exacerbating my pounding headache; 2) Shift my role to hospice chaplain for a dying church; 3) Walk away to find something more fruitful to do with my life; or 4) Do something I have never seriously considered during all my struggles to change the church: change myself.
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It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, the groundbreaking film The Matrix hit the big screen. It was a movie-making breakthrough whose philosophical implications were riveting. (I can’t say that about its two sequels, but I digress.)
There’s a scene in The Matrix where Neo, the lead character, goes into a strange living-room style waiting before his fateful meeting with the Oracle. There on the floor in front of him is a boy who appears to using telekinetic powers to bend spoons.
Neo sits down with the boy who hands him a spoon.
“Do not try and bend the spoon,” said the boy. “That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.”
“What truth?” asked Neo.
“There is no spoon,” said the boy. “Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”From The Matrix (1999)
Perhaps I’ve spent the better part of 20 years doing the impossible task of bending spoons, when all along I could have been bending myself. I’ve been kicking the same immovable goad of trying to change the church. Now I think it’s time to apply that same effort towards changing myself.
In the contemplative world, how we choose to see reality defines everything. Changing how we see God, the world, and ourselves awakens alternative forms of consciousness, and that in turn alters the behavior and the relationship between the seer and everything else.
So, what if my presupposition that the church is a problem to be solved was the wrong way to begin seeing the church? Instead of trying to fix people and things, what if I shifted my motives to loving people and things in their entirety? What if the church is simply a people to be fully loved, not an institution to be fixed?
What if my self-imposed expectations of trying to meet the expectations of my supervisors while simultaneously trying to keep the congregation happy with me have been poor motivations? What if it’s more about seeing God within the people I serve and the community in which I operate, doing all I can to connect with God all around me and within myself, subject to subject, heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul?
Lastly, what if I trusted more fully that the health and the wellbeing of the church is Christ’s primary concern, not just my own? If Christ the Good Shepherd is truly head of his church then I am simply following his lead by asking all these contemplative questions, seeing with his eyes, and then living obediently to him.
It’s taken me nearly 20 years to learn that bending spoons is impossible. But now, hopefully, prayerfully, I can learn to bend myself. It’s all in how I choose to see. It’s always been that simple, and at the same time, unlearning is always so difficult!