I serve a branch of Christianity that has lost about two thirds of its members over the past few decades, consists mostly of churches with less than 100 members, and is currently fracturing over issues such as gay marriage, LGBT ordination, and – of course – money. It’s often lambasted for being liberal and its members are called “the frozen chosen.” So why would I choose to stay within this denomination?
Because there’s no place I’d rather be.
There is no doubt in my mind that our denomination has been facing a crisis in its identity and how it relates to the world for a few decades. The number of churches leaving over the new option to perform same-sex weddings is only the latest indicator that this crisis is alive and well. We have tried and failed, time and time again, to revitalize or revive our denomination. All the numbers point down. And the further down they go, the more excited I get about what God is going to do with us.
When I read the Bible, I see a God who uses crises to teach, call, and transform people and nations. Take the example of Moses. God could have called Moses from Pharaoh’s palace, but Moses was in the desert outside of Midian when God called. God could have called the Hebrew people to overthrow Pharaoh, but instead God called them out of Egypt to give them the commandments. God could have sent the people to the Promised Land, but God sent them to the wilderness before handing over the keys to their new home.
In the wilderness, our best is never enough. The wilderness takes everything we have and gives very little in return, and so when we work as hard as we used to doing the things we used to do to the best of our abilities, we find that we don’t get quite the same results – where we used to thrive, we die. To thrive in the wilderness, we have to learn new ways to doing things. It is now required to take full account of the environment around us; if we overuse a watering hole, it won’t be there next year, and we’ll die. It is now required to give our best effort; if we don’t, we will die. It is now required to care for others; if we lose our community, we will die alone. It is now required to rely on God’s strength and not our own; no amount of planning can help you survive a drought as a desert wanderer.
When the Israelites learned these lessons, God allowed them to enter the Promised Land. I think, in our wilderness, we are beginning to learn these same lessons. But we aren’t there yet. Before we get to the Promised Land, we have to leave Egypt behind. We bring with us the stories (#neverforget) and the rituals (Passover), but we aren’t in Egypt anymore.
In the wilderness, the Israelites asked where their food and water was going to come from now that Egypt no longer gave it to them. They asked who would lead them without Pharaoh. They asked who would protect them now that they had offended their former masters. They began to see Egypt as a comfortable, rich place. They could only enter the Promised Land once Egypt was fully behind them.
So I’m excited to be part of our process of leaving Egypt behind, journeying across a barren desert (forgetting, remembering, and learning), and entering into a new Promised Land. I won’t allow myself to forget the lessons we’ve learned as an institutional church, but I can’t wait to see what new form God’s community takes. I’m thrilled that house and cafe churches marked by community and compassion are taking root. I’m excited that the reality of the internet and cell phones are being taken seriously by churches, just as the printing press, radio, and television were. I’m amazed at the new, unprecedented level of cooperation and partnership between Presbyterians and other denominations and religions, especially at the local level. I’m glad that people no longer have to pretend that they love the church even if they don’t, that they can stop going to church out of guilt and hopefully, eventually start going out of love, duty, gratitude, or respect. And I’m glad that across the country, churches are being brave enough to die.
In 2012, I had the chance to preach to the Board of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and the text I chose was John 12:24-25 – “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” And I told them not to be afraid of death, but instead, to embrace it. In this crisis, what we should fear most of all is loving the life of our church too much. By embracing the possibility of death – death to programs, death to membership growth, death to the building, death to the chartered congregation – we admit our own inability to save ourselves. If we are faithful Christians, we will at that point trust that much more firmly in Christ, who was raised from the dead. Let the congregation die – if a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit!
I am a Christian because I believe in the power of a resurrected God who promises to resurrect me (and the world) as well. How could I not believe that about the church? And so I’ll repeat – there’s no place I’d rather be. Why would you choose to leave a church where God is intensely at work, bringing about resurrection? You don’t get to see that every day. So I’ll wait, and I’ll watch, and I’ll work, until God brings us all to that new Promised Land.