A couple of months ago, after a long layoff, I started jogging again. My motivation was simple: I wanted to stop wheezing likely a badly maintained calliope at the top of the stairs and I wanted to feel like I did when I was 30.
I got it half right. The wheezing is pretty much under control, but I don’t feel at all like I did when I was 30. I feel like what I am—a 65-year old man with sore legs and blisters. But that’s all right. I am glad I started running again and I am better off for having done it. I am okay with the reality that I will never be 30 again; and therein, I think, lies a lesson for many of our churches.
Back when I was 30, physical things came easily. I could exercise for a while, layoff for a month and pick up right where I left off. Now, if I miss two days, I have to start over from square one. But I do start over, and that’s the important thing.
So it is for many of our churches. Back when they were in the ecclesial equivalent of their early 30’s, the 1960’s and early 1970’s, things came easy. There always seemed to be enough money. The rolls were so full of young children that we had to build whole education wings for them. The line for people waiting to join the congregations stretched out to the parking lot. Not so much any more.
Churches have entered their 60’s. Money is tight. Congregations are shrinking. And kids? Fuhgeddaboudit. The kids are all off playing soccer or Pop Warner football or Mom and Dad have gotten a divorce and this is the week they visit the other parent. Our churches are wheezing at the top of the stairs and all that many of them can seem to do is sit around remembering just how good it used to be. Maybe they need to start jogging again, too.
Perhaps it’s time for our churches to stop wrapping themselves in the cloak of their memories and start coming to grips with the reality of their mission in the present time. So what if there will never be 350 people in the sanctuary again? So what if this year’s confirmation class is 3 rather than 30? So what if the pastor is only part-time? So what if the church may never again be what it was in 1965? Is any of this a compelling reason to sit around staring at each other until the lights go out?
In his book “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church”, Paul Nixon presents a church that wants to reverse its slow slide into oblivion with several choices, perhaps the most important of which is the most obvious: Choose life. When Moses addressed the Hebrews as they prepared to cross the Jordan on their way from Egypt to Canaan, he told them: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20a). Maybe it’s just that simple.
Choose life, not death. There’s still work to be done and even if we’re no longer the church of the 1960’s so what? It’s still up to us. After all, who else is there?
Tony Stoik, Associate Conference Minister