Opinion: Church isn't about survival
Written by Jane Fisler Hoffman
March 30, 2010
Ok, I've had it. If I go to one more congregation and participate in this conversation, which I am reproducing in actual words I've heard in various places, I may have to throw a tantrum:
Church folk: "Can't the Conference help us? We need more members…"
Church folk: "Well, we want to keep our doors open."
Church folk: "We need the money to keep going."
Me: "Why?" [wishing for: 'so we can spread God's love wider' or some such!]
Church folk: "We need some young people." [Why, etc...]
Don't get me wrong. I dearly love these church folk and my heart aches for them. The world is changing at breakneck speed and now the church that has helped them live in the world is changing or even disappearing. It's frightening and worrying and thus the anxious conversations. I get that totally.
But it is time that the hundreds of United Church of Christ congregations across the country who are having these conversations among themselves or with wider church leaders had a different conversation. There is no better time than Holy Week, with its roller coaster moves from Palm Sunday parades (think the wall-bursting mainline church of the fifties) to the Good Friday cross (think of the too many near empty, heat guzzling church buildings across the country) to Easter (think future?) to ponder and have conversations about what it means to be the church in this year of our Lord, 2010.
Whatever our understanding of the meaning or "why" of Good Friday, we who claim the name of Christian this week all confess that Jesus lived and then he died. He did not just survive. Out of my own faith, I would say that he lived God's love and spoke courageously to the wrong of the world with such passion that the powers of the world could not stand it and ended his life. He lived fully until he died.
That's what I want to beg of the church-every local church, but Conferences, denominations too: LIVE! Don't just survive—live fully until death comes, as it does for all things human. We need to recall that we of the United Church of Christ even professed before our 1957 birth that: "denominations exist not for themselves but as parts of that Church, within which each denomination is to live and labor and, if need be die..." (Basis of Union, 1949)
Is that not true of every part of the church - local, conference and national?
UCC friends, let's not settle for surviving, bemoaning our lot, giving CPR to our institutions, devoting our time and money to keeping our buildings open. Let's live God's love and justice and see where that takes us. For some that living may mean phenomenal growth - touching new lives, teaching new possibilities, transforming despair to hope. For some, that living may mean acknowledging that life as we have known it is complete and turn it over to God for an ending. Yes, for a local church that may even mean closing out the ministry we have had in this particular place and time. For all living things, there is a time to live and a time to die.
But this being Holy Week, need I say that deciding to live until we die doesn't need to be the end of the story? One of my favorite church end-of-life stories is about a UCC congregation in a conservative region that decided very intentionally that they needed to close in 18 months. Access to their location had been undermined by highway building, their numbers had declined and their pastor would reach retirement at the end of that time. So they made an intentional decision to close and made appropriate plans to turn their property and modest assets over to the Conference to invest in a new church or other projects of renewal.
But here's the fun, delight-full thing: during those 18 months, once having decided not to survive, they decided to live as they never had before. They decided, 'what the heck' and became Open and Affirming. They started a homeless outreach to the highway changed community around them. Yes, they still closed their ministry but they LIVED until they died and lived again in lives they had touched and in their asset gifts for new and renewing churches.
It's Holy Week, 2010. Maybe this year some of our declining congregations (and Conferences and denomination) will forget about survival and decide to LIVE - until they/we die, and - who knows - perhaps beyond. It's been done...
The Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman is the Southern California-Nevada Interim Conference Minister.