Soon after I was ordained, I got a call from the pastor of the church where I was baptized. He was called right about the same time my parents moved from Des Moines to Naperville. There is a tradition among some clergy that upon retirement, the bulk of one’s library is bestowed upon a newly ordained pastor. There is no ceremony, but it usually comes with a lunch and a long day of the retiring pastor telling the stories of the books. It was a really neat day.
When I got back to my office and unloaded my new library, I could not help myself and spent hours reading and perusing the books. Some were useless, either copies of what I had or specific to things or programs that no longer existed. One of the most interesting sections, and probably the one that has been the most useful was what I might call “being the church in changing times.”
I began to laugh as I read these books that ranged from the difficulty of re-engaging young adults (20-40) to the changing nature of the pastorate. The funny thing was that according to that retired pastor’s library, there was a crisis going on in the global church where there were cosmic shifts and the church was perceived to be so far out of whack that they were on the verge of closing. For the record, the mainline church was not wiped out; actually, the decreases of the seventies lead to a rise in membership in congregations is the 80’s.
I called my friend and asked about the books and his response was simple, “churches go through cycles; when it is down, you have books that tell you how to regain what you once had and when it is up, they warn of the impending doom.” What you know from being in ministry long enough is that a church, like a person, is resilient. Is it healthy, or is it not.” He said the thing was that all of the books in that section stood as a reminder that people can say a lot of stuff, but the reality is that churches that are viable are able to connect with their communities, and the churches that are dying are unable to make that connection. Moreover, he said one of the most important things, “size does not equal health or viability.” And then he said the most important thing “the church does not exist to keep its doors open, it is here to serve God and to serve the community. When the church stops doing either of those things, it stops being the church and like a brain-dead body, keeps going while the soul has already moved on.”
It sounded harsh when he said it, but since then I have seen this to be true. In fact, as I went back and read all of those books from the “being the church in changing times,” (all copyrighted between 1965 and 1975) all of them said essentially the same thing: forget about size, money, what you did before and even what you want to do, and look at how you are connected with your community and how you are guided by God. Interestingly, 40 years later, the most recent texts on church health and growth say the exact same thing.
Interestingly, I read things like “the crisis of the main line church” and predictions of its demise. Those are always valid to a certain extent, but the problem we face when we let those take over is the question that Christ is perpetually asking, “who do we serve?” The truth is when churches are asking the right questions “who do I serve, how am I serving my community?” churches always seem to grow, though not always in number, they always grow in faith and strength in their community.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen