It’s been a bittersweet time for me.
On the one hand, I am excited of being pastor at First Christian. There are a lot of challenges; the church is down a faithful few and we are starting to find ways to grow numerically and spiritually as well. Most churches that are down to a handful would just close and that was suggested to the folks at First. But they decided to stick together and keep on keeping on. I am amazed at their faith and feel honored to journey with them as First-St. Paul becomes something new and yet the same.
But there is also a lot of frustration when it comes church planting. As many of you know, I was heading up an unoffical group in my Region dealing with new church. Without going into much detail at this point, the New Church Team is on hiatus. I’m not heading it up anymore (though I’m still on the team) but I don’t know when if ever the group will start up again.
As I’ve said before, last year was a dissapointing year when it came to church planting. There were a number of people who expressed interest in church planting, but for the most part all the talk was just that…talk. Add to that is the failure of a Region-sponsored church plant in Rochester, MN and 2013 just seemed bad.
It’s not all a failure. Our joint ministry with the United Methodists in North Dakota is doing rather well. I am thankful for Ward and Theta Miller and their heart and passion for ministry. I’m also thankful for having the chance to help the Millers make their dream a reality. The success with New Roots in North Dakota, made me hopeful and looking forward to helping birth another faith community. I was hoping to help my Region have a better track record with starting new churches and at least from my vantage point, I failed.
My passion (actually, it’s my aspergian obsession) with new churches is part of a bigger passion that is only now coming together in my mind. You see, I am passionate about new churches, but I am also passionate about keeping churches open. I don’t believe that you should never close a church. As a mentor once said, there are no churches around that have existed since that Pentecost Sunday. But I think that Regions and other middle judicatories need to think long and hard before shuttering the church’s door. Church should be a place where God’s people gather, remembering their calling and being sent into the world to preach the good news. We can’t do that if we aren’t learning how to be a faithful living community of believers. We really can’t do it if we lack a passion for evangelism and that is something that is found in spades in mainline churches:
Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don’t want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people’s throats.
But our approach hasn’t been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.
We seem to have a hard time starting churches, but we seem to be able to close long-standing congregations such as those in Fridley, Rochester and Mankato. In some cases, these churches had outlived their ministry, so I can understand closing a church. But we aren’t planting new churches in these areas and other parts of the state. The reason we plant new churches is to create communities where people can see what God is all about. To be blunt, churches exist to show the wider community the love Jesus. Do we understand that? Do I? This is what Episcopalian Robert Hendrickson said in a blog post from 2012:
Current trends in the Church point toward a revolution of profound and disturbing significance. We no longer seem able or willing to say how it is that God transforms us as individuals and as a Body because we are uncomfortable with difference. The underlying message of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s proposal to endorse Communion without Baptism was first that we have failed to bring new people to the Church and second that the failure really isn’t that important because people are fine as they are and not in need of Baptism.
The message of the Church cannot only be “you’re fine as you are.” This kind of undifferentiated affirmation results not in an inclusive community but in a community without an understanding of its own purpose, message, identity, or goal.
I am not advocating that we return to fire and brimstone or rest our teaching on moralizing about private lives but I do think we need to be honest that God is calling us to be different, to change, to be transformed. Christ’s message was not one of affirmation alone but an invitation to die. It was an invitation not to live today as we did yesterday but to know our old selves as dead. This was the invitation of Baptism. This was the difference.
The Church comes together to celebrate Sacred Mysteries. It exists to say the Mass together and share in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – in Communion with Christ. It exists to baptize new believers into the Body. It exists to be a Body of reconciliation and forgiveness. It exists to call people into union with one another in Christ. It exists to heal and to offer hope for the life to come.
The Church exists to change us and all those around us in sacred moments by sacred mystery. It exists to make us different – to make us one in Christ.
In some of my discussions about church planting, a few fellow pastors have suggested that I plant a church. I am giving it some throught. However, I am already working with one church and I feel I need to let them know I am with them as they try to survive and thrive. I will see how God leads. I don’t know if I could do two churches at the same time, but who knows.
With only a handful of Disciples churches in Minnesota, I want to see new churches. But I am wondering if this is the time to give up, or take a “sabbatical” and start again. Maybe this is a sign that I need to take a break.
I just hope at some point there is a passion at the Regional Church and congregational level to start new communities that will reach out to the growing diversity that is the Upper Midwest. All I can do is trust that God will work through me and others.
God help me.