I have been in ministry for eight years. I chose and still choose not to have gone the associate member route that is so often encouraged with younger clergy and so that means I have served a total of four churches (two charges) that are the face of the churches statistics reflect in the Call to Action Report. On paper, these churches are not vital. On conference reports, these churches have more outflows that inflows. More people leave than come in, more money is spent than is collected. On paper, they have little to offer. When you walk through their tiny buildings with their outdated decor and their sanctuary that looks full at 70 worshipers, they don’t seem to have any thing to offer.
And yet I have this sense that it is not the churches or these church members who have failed.
It is the conference leadership, who only defines them by statistics on a page.
It is the District Superintendents, who see the statistics and the scared, hopeless faces around the table put them into the “non-vital” category.
It is the pastors who are bullied, who are busy trying to change the past, who don’t know how to offer a dream to a people who seem to be heading at a break neck speed towards death, who aren’t courageous enough to stand up to the woe-is-us attitude and offer hope.
The small (and I mean small…think 20-50 on a Sunday morning) churches I serve, went from booming 50 years ago to bust ten years ago. They have made excuses and been given excuses. They have clung for way too long to what was. They have given into fear. They have landed at hopelessness. Some of it IS their own doing. Some of it is because they have bought what they were told by well meaning pastors and conference reports.
We live in a big culture. The bigger the better. When something fails you just throw it away and buy a new one. These small rural churches know they have failed. They are put up against the large mega churches near-by that they keep losing members to and they know they are no longer vital. They understand they are part of a church that is dying. They (and I as their pastor) don’t need to be scared into believing the statistics because we live the statistics with every letter of transfer we sign and every loyal church member we bury. What we need is someone who is in a position of authority, someone who “knows church” to look at those death statistics and preach resurrection.
My sorrowful reaction to the General Conference Call to Action report comes not because I don’t want to face reality. I live this church reality every day. It is sorrow because when I read the report several months ago, I found so much to be hopeful for out of the report. When I presented the report to two small rural churches that know they are not vital, I saw hope in their eyes and heard it in their conversation. “The General Church has finally given us something that offers hope!” was our response. We are building a dream and a future out of the Call to Action report and it is already changing our churches.
My sorrow was that the report given seems to try to take the power of resurrection out this report, especially for a small church. Of course I was not at General Conference, I know only what I saw and what I am reading and I was not a part of the conversation that took place afterwards with the young delegates and Adam Hamilton.
I only know that when I speak words of hope and resurrection to these small churches they begin to dream about what God might do with them yet. When I take the time to cast a vision with them of the future God desires them to have, they become engaged in God’s work. It may not be big and flashy. It may not lead to needing a bigger building and more classrooms but it will lead to lives transformed in the name of Jesus.
I won’t share with my churches the report given at General Conference. I was hoping to, as encouragement in this journey, but we don’t need a reality check. We will keep moving forward with the hope that IS found in this report, with areas that were lifted up that we can make healthy changes and thus build a more vital future. I suspect it will take a few years before we move completely out of hopelessness. I suspect it will take a few years after that for the reports to trickle up to show we are “vital”. But I believe that God is working to resurrect two small rural churches in Iowa because he is not done with them yet. And I am thankful for a General Church that has given is a good word that encourage’s us in this journey, even if they sometimes forget that “perfect love casts out fear” and instilling fear is not necessary to speak hard truth.