You may have heard that the church is in decline in North America. That attendance is down and churches are closing their doors at an estimated rate of 4,000-8,000 per year. You may have heard that the end is near and you better shape up in order to be saved from an impending disaster that will find some folks left behind in a chaotic and anarchic sea of wickedness. You may have heard that church doesn’t matter anymore, has outlived its usefulness and does more harm than good.
Don’t believe it.
Because it is just not true.
The Christian Church has survived corruption at its highest levels, the inquisitions, innumerable schisms and divisions, bad theology, terrible preaching, unchristian Christians, new hymnals, guitars in sanctuaries, and the near deification of lye-soaked fish, . Don’t count us out. We will be just fine. The Church is resilient, hopeful, creative and resourceful. It is not going away anytime soon.
And I should know because I just closed a church.
Well, we really didn’t close Church. You see as Christians we believe that the Church is simply God’s people deployed in the world for the sake of the good news that God’s love for the world is known and revealed in Jesus Christ. In that sense, the Church can’t really be ‘closed.’ It can and does however, cease to be what it is commissioned to be when we as Christians get off point of this defining message. But that isn’t what happened to us.
Last fall we had an amazing celebration of 25 years of ministry for a community of people who were known as St. Mary Magdalene Lutheran Church. We memorialized the good work that we had done through the years, the life-long relationships developed, the children who had grown in our midst, and the power of God’s promises under our feet that helped us stand. But when the party was over we had plenty of hard work to do beyond cleaning up the kitchen. We dug into the difficult work of transforming ourselves into a new community of faith that would soon leave the building that we had worked diligently to build and could no longer afford.
God doesn’t desert God’s people. God is ever faithful and holds true to the promises on which his people stand. And God’s people do not desert each other either. Our people stuck together in faith with tremendous lay leadership and an amazing internal fortitude amid much grief and anxiety. Neighboring churches came beside us and our denominational body supported us and gave us guidance. And now, a year later, we have come through the fire and merged with our former partner in ministry River of Joy Lutheran Church to become a new community of faith called Living Joy.
The Christian Church is not going away anytime soon. It is resilient, hopeful, creative, and resourceful. Like the love that the Church is called to preach, when it is at its best the Church “bears, all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Perseverance in changing and difficult times is God’s thing.
50 years ago Bob Dylan gave us these words as he prophetically saw the seismic shifts taking place on the tectonic level under the cultural landscape:
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
This week Pope Francis said that the Church has ‘to respond courageously to whatever new challenges come our way” that “God is not afraid of new things” and that God is “continuously surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.”
We Christians can be a little slow on the uptake sometimes (think Galileo et al). But when we feel the tremors of change under our feet the promises of God’s goodness and love on which our ancestors have stood through the centuries provide firm footing as the times change. And that rising water that Dylan sings about, bring it on!
In a few weeks we will bring a child to a baptismal font that is 25 years old and speak ancient promises of God’s love over her being and ask for blessings upon her parents. It will be beautiful.
Some things do indeed change.
And some things are ancient and eternal.
May we be wise enough to know the difference.