When was the last time that we praised our congregations? When have we communicated that participation in our local church has been a blessing to us? How often do we thank God for the community in which we are surrounded? When was the last time that we rejoiced because we belong to this church?
As a priest, I am on several clergy forums. This means that on a daily basis, my social media feed will inevitably involve the latest article about the church. Much of these blogs reposted, stories told, or articles shared, attempt to decipher the reasoning behind the numerical decline in the church today. Each takes a different slant; for some the culprit is the lack of Millennials; some mention the lower number of volunteers; others highlight music, or the over-all structure of the church today.
Most recently I came across a post related to church-planting. One would think that a post related to the ins-and-outs of planting new congregations would focus on the blessing of community, and the power of God. Sadly, the post began with a detailed discussion of how the ‘older’ church has lost its way. “We need a new church for a new people.” Instead of a hope-fueled declaration of God’s activity, there was a slight against church as it is most commonly experienced. Thanks for informing me that God has moved on from my church.
I don’t mean to be snarky . . . although that can be a bit difficult at times. Much of these articles and blogs highlight many important issues. The problems that I see is that taken as a corpus, these voices leave quite a depressing taste in our mouths. Time and time again, through story after story and blog after blog, we read that the church is not doing what it should do . . .the church is reaching the wrong people . . . the church has lost its mission . . .the church has wrong theology. . .bad, bad, bad . . . .wrong, wrong, wrong . . .decline, decline, decline.
I am not suggesting that there are not things that the church needs to address. Every generation, with every emerging cultural paradigm, must navigate the particularities of the gospel. This is part of what we see in Paul’s letters. Paul wrote to the churches with a need to address certain issues that needed to be addressed in the church. But do you know what he also did? He praised the congregation. Paul begins every letter by lifting up the people he is writing to, and thanking God for them. “I give thanks for you”, “I rejoice for you”, “I thank God every time I remember you in my prayers”, “I long to see you.”
We sometimes see these statements as Paul ‘buttering up’ his audience. Or we go back to our Intro-to-New-Testament class wherein we had a fascinating lesson about typical Greek letter writing formats. Either way we breeze past these statements so we can get to the important part of Paul’s letters. But what if Paul isn’t being sly? What if these are not statements of social epistleography. What if Paul is expressing something very important? Despite all the flaws, despite all the struggles that come with any community, Paul actually praises God for the church. Paul bases every single letter, even the ones where he tackles some difficult issues, in a spirit of thanksgiving. He edifies the church so that, together, they can address what needs to be addressed.
Could it be that simple? Could unlocking growth, and health, and power, in the church be found in changing the constant narrative that we hear and read? Studies have shown that both children and adults who undergo relentless verbal abuse will inevitably begin to believe the lies. A child who is constantly told that he or she is ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’, or ‘stupid’ will eventually begin to internalize those messages. Tell someone something long enough and it begins to form how they understand themselves, and the world around them. Have we been doing this to the church?
The narrative we immerse ourselves in is of incredible importance. How long have we been telling the church that it is wrong? How long have we been saying that the mainline denominations are ‘missing the target’, or ‘backward’ or ‘out-of-touch.’ Could it be that we have fed ourselves on this message to such a degree that we are now living out this narrative?
Again, please don’t misread me. I am not suggesting that the church is perfect. Not by any means. But our imperfection is not opposed to rejoicing in this body of faith in which we are blessed to be a part. We need to begin our discussions about the church in a different place – a more positive place. We need to recognise that this is a blessed church, regardless the form, the age of people, the model it adheres to. This is a blessed church, a hope-filled church, because it is the church of the living God. And so we can thank God for this church. We can rejoice in God’s power seen through its witness.
I love my church. I am blessed to be a part of it. I thank God for the community that has held me, and loved me, and cared for me in far more ways than I can ever count. I hope this is the case for you as well.