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What’s Happening In The Church

A church in my community recently fired its pastor.  It was a small number of folks who spearheaded the effort.  It’s a big church – or it was.  One hundred families have left that congregation since this action.

Another congregation has lost significant numbers because a conflict between a Senior Pastor and his staff resulted in the departure of most members of the staff, followed by a similar departure of many members.

These stories were accentuated this past week when I attended the “Minister’s Family Retreat” sponsored by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.  Annually about 15-20 clergy families gather at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, VA, for a “break” from the stresses associated with being a pastor.  This year many in the group needed this “break.”

One pastor has veen serving for 30 years and has never even had any conflicts in any congregation or even a single church member.   He’s been in three churches in his thirty years – the current congregation only a hand full of years.  Each church has grown during his ministry – the current is no exception.  Still, he is mired in a number of petty conflicts.

Another has been in his church for two decades – and is one of the most positive and relational type leaders I know.  He is a gifted story-teller and preacher, active in missions, and recognized in his larger community as leader.  Recently he has dealt with some tough issues that are causing him some heartache within his church.

Two others have recently been forced to leave their church – because the congregations rejected the messages of changed preached by their servants.  The call to change was not to reject any aspect of classic Christian doctrine.   Most churches will change what they believe much easier than the things they are doing.  The challenge from these pastors was to modify their ministry so that they might connect with a changing environment and preach “good news” to hurting people.  Both clergy-persons tried to lead the church toward change – but change seemed to be a “four-letter-word” for these congregations.  Both were forced to leave – one in ways too intense (too evil) to even speak of here.

These are just a few stories – many more could be told.  These cross political and theological spectrums.  Some are country, others urban.  Some are women, others are men.  Some are very conservative, others would self-identify as progressives.  All are free from any sort of moral controversy or financial malfeasance.

Now this sort of thing has been happening in churches since the days that the New Testament letters were being written, so it is really nothing new.  But it seems to me (without research of any sort to back up my hunch) that this stuff is happening much more often and with much greater meanness than ever before.

So what’s going on?

My guess is that things in society really are changing – internationally, politically, and economically – and it doesn’t look like things will ever go back to the way they were before.

Sometimes people get mad at God at times like this – and they take it out on God spokespersons, because they would never dare challenge God.

Sometimes the clergy are dealing with issues of their own (illness, financial stress, grief) and they need time to deal and help from their church – but such needs make them appear less godly.  “Preachers aren’t supposed to get angry,” a man once told me.  Hearing him say such a foolish statement sure did make me mad.

Sometimes clergy are the ones who have been preaching the need for change, transition, building connections, being missional.  Then, when the needs and opportunities of society have passed the churches ability to connect and respond – it becomes the pastor’s fault that the church is not growing.

The reasons are many and varied.

Right now it seems to me that people are in such turmoil in churches because the world is such a different place than what they have created and built inside the four walls of their sanctuary – and being unwilling to change ministry styles to connect  – they have simply decided to take out their frustration on the change agent in their midst (their pastor).

“If we can just get the RIGHT pastor, we can grow again – the way we want to grow!”  I have heard church members in other congregations say this on several occassions.  What do they means by growing “the way we want to grow?”  They mean they want to reach folks who look, talk, dress, act, believe, vote, and live the way THEY DO in the church.

The rest of the world (often living in the houses across the street) can just GO TO HELL!

The pastor challenges change.  The pastor declares the undeniable truth – the world is changing and we can’t make it revert to what it once was (as if that would be an improvement).  Instead of heeding the Pastor’s call, he/shee is blamed for the change.  The pastor is rejected that than recognized as the prophet who said it was coming and has been leading and preaching how to be faithful to Jesus through the midst of the tumult.

There is a delightful scene in one of Lily Tomlin’s movies in which she becomes The Incredible Shrinking Woman.  In one scenes during that movie Ms. Tomlin finds herself so short and thin that she is in danger of being washed down a kitchen drain.  We see her swirling around and around in the kitchen sink desperately trying to find something to hold on to.  Finally she grabs hold of a string of pasta which she clings to with all her might hoping and praying that her salvation will soon appear.  She finds herself at the end of her rope clinging for dear life.

I think this is how many people are feeling as they are observing the  conditions of the world around us.  We feel like we are at the end of our rope.  We are afraid that the hopeless despair of our society will eventually overwhelm and defeat us.  We read the headlines in the newspapers (or scrolling across the bottom of our favorite cable news channel) as it tells us about wars, rumors of wars, credit rating being dropped, crime and violence.  In the USA and around the world people seem to have so little good news to talk about.  There is a  prevailing sense of despair — and this despair will cause us to lose hope — hope in the world, hope in ourselves, and even hope in God.

So what are we to do?

In Isaiah 64 the prophet pens a rather pushy prayer on behalf of a group of people who, having exhausted all possible human alternatives, now give up on polite, respectful and restrained prayers to God.  I wrote about this in a recent blog, but it seems so much more fitting right now – in the light of all the despair.  In a world like ours, we need a reminder that God really is intimately involved in the world.  We need to be reminded that God acts, that change is not a curse word, and that we are all actually moving forward toward the culmination of the Trinity ultimate plan for our lives, our churches, and even the whole world.  Going backwards is an option, but not a good one.  We could also choose to stand firm and stay put, but that is not the right course either.  God is out there in front of us, calling us forward.  God is working redeeming, loving, and restoring – even when it doesn’t look that way.

The first verse of the sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah began with these powerful, pushy words from a people who had no where else to turn for hope except towards God.  “O that you would tear open (literally rip apart) the heavens and come down.”

This prayer was specifically offered by a people, who, after having returned from excile in Babylon found their national capital is disarray and the temple of their God laying in ruins.  For these people the rubble of the temple signified the defeat of their national hope.  It was as if Israel no longer belong to God — as if they were now like all the other nations and people of the world who were “not called by God’s name” (v. 19).

But this pushy prayer moves beyond a tearful lament by boldly reminding God about his divine deeds of deliverance in the past.  Aha!  Doesn’t this sound like a little bit of faith at work in the midst of  the dark despair of their existence.

“God, remember how you acted in the past!  Remember how you led us out of Egypt?  Remember how you cared for us while we were in the wilderness?  Remember how you stood by us and delivered us despite our sinful rebellion?  Oh God if you will remember how you cared for us in the past, then our prayer is simply this — Do it again!  Do it again! Do it again!”

To bring it forward into the New testament, to the cornerstone of our faith (the resurrection), our hope is in remembering that God in Christ is still in the business of redemption and always will be, so let’s not give up, give in, or surrender.

If you are reading this blog right now and attend a church – give your pastor and staff a hug,  Tell them you love them.  Stand with them and support them.

If you are reading and are a pastor – don’t quit.  You might have to leave your church – but don’t quit.  You may get treated like many prophets – being abused, misused, fired, or worse – but don’t quit.  Keep on loving your church members – even the ones you might want to knock upside the head.  They are most likely hurting and any of their evil actions against you is only going to hurt their own souls, because they were not redeemed to live that way.

If you are reading this and are not religious – that’s great.  Religion is the bane of my existence (and I am a pastor).  Learn something about Jesus.  Place your confidence in Jesus.  The world around you may seem to be falling apart, but it is not.  It’s certainly in a bit of a rough patch right now.  But these are, in my opinion , the transition pains that come – like labor pains before birth.

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One Response to “What’s Happening In The Church”

  1. Tammy says:

    thank you for sharing with words what has been raging in my heart for a few months now. your insight is appreciated more than you will ever know. blessings

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