The Future is Counting on Us
I recently traveled in France, where I had the chance to see several of the world’s most beautiful churches. My visits included three cathedrals dedicated to Mary the mother of Jesus – Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille (built in 1864), the magnificent Cathedral of the Our Lady of Chartres (finished in 1250) outside Paris, and, perhaps the most famous of all, Notre Dame de Paris (completed in 1345), a Gothic wonder of flying buttresses, gargoyles, and sky-touching towers inviting the faithful to give glory to God.
Gazing at these cathedrals, I was struck that generations of wealthy leaders employed their most skilled crafts people and artists to build up the church of Jesus Christ in their day.
How curious that these monuments of profound faith are largely tourist sites today, drawing more interest in their history and art than in the good news that is still proclaimed from their pulpits. Signs are posted inviting people to regular worship services, yet their pews are no longer full, their program offerings unable to spark much energy. Standing in each sanctuary, I wondered why the church has lost its influence over so many people’s lives … not just in the medieval cathedrals of France, but in American houses of worship as well.
A Puzzling Indifference
I thought about the priorities of American society these days – how money, power, and creative genius are invested, how our very brightest young people are drawn to shaping new technologies, most of which have little to do with engaging the God of all creation.
Science has transformed our relation to creation in dramatic and wonderful ways, yet this does not explain why a people who once put their faith in God now seem to have little interest in those ancient sources of wisdom and grace.
Where flying buttresses once commanded awe, and space was designed to be filled with mystery, where now do the senses go to be awakened? How is faith being lived out?
We know this to be true: The church is the community in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, the wonder of faith is shared, and the power of grace transforms lives. Communities of trust, depth, and faithful living are built around the Eucharist and the biblical story. These are priceless gifts in an age where technology can separate us from an intimacy essential to healthy existence.
Defying the Tumult
In my 30 years as a parish pastor, I’ve seen what happens when people come together to care for each other in this war-weary world. The results don’t depend much on technology. A new baby is born and meals are delivered. A beloved spouse dies and friends come by and stay awhile. A child struggles with math and a church member spends hours each week helping with homework. Such kindnesses do not require church or even a life of faith. But being part of a church prompts people to think again about the purpose of their lives.
This has always been the case: No matter how tumultuous or uncertain the era, church community at its best is a model of hospitality, a space for new relationship with God and neighbor, where people come longing to hear words of forgiveness, to sing a new song in their life and work.
Early in my ministry, I met a man whose work at a chemical company involved leaded gas production. He was struggling with his new awareness that this leaded fuel, pumped into automobiles for the decades of his working life, had done great environmental harm. After retirement, he continued to grieve that the well-intended labors of his life had been misspent. In worship, he heard the assurance of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and the comforting promise that the wounded could be made whole again. Jesus’ power to heal touched my parishioner’s heart and moved him into a retirement vocation filled with ecological activism.
In my last congregation, I heard passionate cries to improve the lives of homeless women and men living in New Haven. A wheelbarrow at church was set up for food pantry contributions. It was filled to overflowing each week. Working with other congregations, we converted our gathering space into housing for 12 homeless men for a week each winter, providing safety and warmth on the coldest nights.
Such simple acts of compassion are starting places for church vitality in this generation. Jesus said, “whenever you sheltered one of mine or fed one of mine, you sheltered and fed me” – and by such a witness, lives are changed and hope is restored.
This year has seen a resurgence of the strength of the church to make a difference in the way our society lives together. The 2014 killing of Michael Brown sparked a broad movement among faithful people. The church has come alive again as pastors and religious leaders take to the streets in clergy collars, weighing in on Confederate flag debates and the moral imperatives of racial justice. Faith conversation is curiously relevant once more.
In periods of crisis, we find our voices anew, and we are not shy to proclaim the church is alive and living out Christ’s gospel promises. We are not naïve about the difficult places. But our hope is more powerful than the challenges and failures we have known.
In June, I said goodbye to a congregation I have served for 18 years in order to join a new effort at YDS to understand what church revitalization will look like. I will be listening to church leaders as they share ideas about making congregations places of vision and hospitality.
In my experience, vital churches can be any size, as long as those with the power in the congregation are willing to share it. Leadership ought to be representative, include the voices of the young and the otherwise disenfranchised. Education programs are theologically and biblically strong, inspiring us to wrestle with who God is and who we are. A vital congregation is where mercy is experienced and offered, where strangers become friends and work together. A vibrant church is filled with people who want to be part of what is going on in the building and outside it.
Much Has Changed–For the Better
Yet even as I list these strengths, I worry they may be the marks of a once-vital church, not the future thriving church. The work before us now is to discern which of those old priorities matter still, and what new things are life-giving to the future. We might recall that Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. His ministry met people where they were and walked with them to where they needed to be.
It is time for us who love the church and wish to see it grow – not just in numbers but in spirit – to stop feeling embattled simply because we are, yet again, in a time of crisis or marginalization.The church has a unique story to tell: The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ changes societies and renews lives.
No, things aren’t the way they were in 12th-century France, or in 1950s USA, or even in the 80s when my call to ministry took shape. Much has changed in recent decades – most of it for the good. Opening church leadership beyond patriarchal structures has improved the lives of so many. Society has gained by the presence of women and others who for too long have been on the sidelines of career advancement. The church has much to contribute to the spread of justice – speaking out against police brutality, demanding changes in gun laws, advocating a living wage. The gospel is made real with each just act, with each extension of human touch.
The church has forever been about providing glimpses of the realm of God on earth. Let us reclaim that good work. The beloved community of the present and the future is counting on us.
Maria LaSala is Director of Congregational Ministry at YDS. For 18 years, she was co-pastor, with husband Bill Goettler, of First Presbyterian Church of New Haven.