On a recent trip across the Northwest portion of Iowa, Pastor David Hobbs, Nathaniel Mason and I visited a number of United Methodist Churches. We simply stopped in for a quick word (or two hour conversation, here and there), and to get a sense for the churches and the communities they serve. I was impressed by the variety of buildings, sanctuaries, and ministries we encountered. One church was having its sanctuary ceiling painted so we talked with the painters and offered them a prayer for safety, which they found rather amusing as clambering like monkeys across sky high scaffolding is a “simple” job for them; no gold leaf, murals, or ceiling art for them in this United Methodist Church-just a few brush strokes and wooden beams to refinish.
Now, I have been reading a lot of books about church health; books about evangelism, worship, and programming; books about the trends of worship attendance and the difference between churches which grow and churches which seem to fizzle out and die. I have been reading about leadership styles and ways of organizing work so that . . . yadah, yadah, yadah. Yet, this trip offered me an interesting puzzle.
Because, there were churches that were getting everything right, and yet they were empty.
Passionate leaders with a vision and lion’s heart for ministry: Check
Visible and cohesive messages of welcome for visitors: Check
Open and inviting gathering spaces which are accessible: Check
Brightly colored and updated Sunday School rooms: Check
Modern sanctuaries with flexible A/V and chancel spaces: Check
Quality musical instruments and musicians capable of playing them: Check
Connections to the school district: Check
Obvious opportunities to serve both within the church building and outside in the wider community: Check
Stories of radical hospitality and generous giving: Check
Evidence of ministry with people who are not current members or active participants in the church: Check
So, why were these particular churches echoing, while others were bustling with life and activity? What does it mean to get everything right and to still be disappearing week by week and pastor by pastor?
In one particular church, I felt such sadness because there was so much potential there. There was so much love, care and faithfulness on display, it made my heart hurt to think it was for nothing-that the people whose lives could be so enriched simply by stepping inside this church’s doors will never know what they are missing.
So I stopped, right there in the gathering space just inside the main entrance and I asked God, “Why? What’s going on here that this church is sputtering out?” And, like a whisper across the top of my brain I heard, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14: 26)
I have been puzzling on these words and that particular church, ever since. I wonder how to share what I heard. I wonder what it means. Is there some relevance for the other churches I have visited that just can’t seem to do more than simply hang on, even though they are applying all the best ideas? I wonder what to do with the sadness and futility that plagues the staff and volunteers whose hearts are giving out because they have been trying so hard for so long, but have not seen their efforts rewarded by flourishing Christian witness and community.
Why, at times, must the Gospel be so hard to hear, and what are we, as disciples of Christ,to do when the words it whispers tell us it is time to give up all we hold dear-our mothers and fathers, our sanctuaries and our memorial gardens, our programs and our histories-and come, and follow him?