Sometimes you can hear the desperation of the church crying out into the wilderness.
Where are all the people?
How will we pay the bills?
Why is our roof leaking?
It’s not a pretty sight. I’ve seen churches where parishioners trounce upon new members like vampires, sucking out life from these unsuspecting innocents.
“Will you serve on this committee? Will you do the work? Will you give us money? Blood or your first child is also OK.”
It is discouraging for those of us vampires. I mean, discouraging for us in the church who truly want to serve, and require resources to do this.
We are caught pleading and begging. It’s the season for us not-for-profits to beg and plead. Blah blah blah. I need your hard earned cash. Now.
Many visitors know that they will be seen as prey and have the sense that they will be valued mainly for their financial contribution. I know because sometimes I, myself, have felt like a predator, wanting desperately to be liked, begging for people to come again. And then making newcomers do the work other congregants burnt themselves out on.
It’s the way many churches work.
I want us to do something different. Before getting on this treadwheel, let me offer a new way of thinking about what we are about to do.
I believe that if the only thing the church cares about is its own institutional survival, then just let it die. In fact, let’s kill it. People don’t need clergy as personal chaplains. They should develop better friendships (although I’ll always be a friendly sounding board). They don’t need to fund a building that’s falling apart, when they’ve got more pressing needs of their own. People are not here to serve the church. Visitors don’t exist for the sake of the church’s survival.
As long as the institutional church thinks of the outside community as potential recruits into their cult, it will either become a cult that revolves around a charismatic personality, or die.
What we need is a completely different model.
A few people, of course, are skeptical. In the old days, the priest was the caregiver. The congregation got served. The priest becomes the one who is responsible for explaining the faith, making the rules, and calling the shots. I do long for those days, but people don’t buy it much anymore. Nor should they.
In a new model, the role of the priest is to communicate the gospel, help people collaborate to live out their ministry, and create entrepreneurial programs that build the community.
In the new model, the church exists for the sake of building up other people – that is what Jesus Christ did. Not just Episcopalians. Not just Christians or Catholics. But everyone who needs support. Skeptics and Jews and Muslims.
Just not Methodists. And Red Sox fans. I draw the line there.
Just kidding aobut that, actually. Of course Methodists. Shintoists, however, must go to the outer darkness. Although I have nothing but respect for those who practice the cult of Amaterasu Omikami.
The shift means that we live into the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Instead of being priest centered – or even church centered – each one of us has the responsibility of encouraging, challenging and participating in our communities. In this time of chaos and distress, we are called to get out and gather the people. Every individual in the parish has a calling, a purpose, a potentiality that they can live out and share.
We may have to think hard about how we connect with people. Do we even know our neighbors? Can we discover their passions, their needs, their hopes and fears, their motivations? Then, when we gather, we can share these hopes and find ways to advocate and enact them.
These friends and connections may never darken our door. But we would be there.
This requires a long term view. It’s hard to change our perspective because churches see their leaking roofs, their heating bills, wondering how they are going to be fixed, frustrated that our kids don’t value the faith that we have. Perhaps we should ask them about what they need.
I think we’ve been telling people what we need so often we’ve simply forgotten how to listen. In many churches we’ve told them who they should be, what they should do, and what they should do better. Some people want those churches and need them badly. They’ll find them. But it’s not how mainline churches will survive.
Our call, however, may simply be – at this time – to listen carefully to what the culture is saying, and where it is hearing the gospel. For the gospel isn’t just holed up in church. It’s in the movies, the music, on the internet. In people’s lives.
Maybe once we have heard, we’ll become the gathering that was intended for us all along.