To the dying church,
I think I missed the moment. It was a pretty big moment, too. At least here in the United States, you were a force to be reckoned with until a few years ago. You helped form the fabric of our society. Pastors were well-respected people of authority. They built great big sanctuaries, and people wore respectable clothing on Sunday mornings. To be fair, you didn’t — and don’t now — always live up to the hype. Sometimes you hide your head in the ground when it’s time to stand up against racism and homophobia. You’re still not so sure about the equality of women. You sometimes sell out to political agendas.
But regardless of the good and the bad, the moment is now over, and you’re dying. Or that’s what they tell me. All that power and influence is fading away. It sounds like some churches are having trouble even keeping the lights on. I know I should mourn for you, but allow me a moment of self-pity here too. What, you thought it was all about you?
You see, I’ve been getting ready for a few years now. A bunch of us have. Some of us have grown up with you, and some of us have just met you recently, but we’re all lining up to serve you. Somehow we all have this nagging sense that we’re supposed to be with you in these days, so some of us went to seminary and some went to college to learn youth ministry. We went to conferences and gave up our evenings and weekends to church basements with committees and youth groups. We read books and studied Scripture and prayed and imagined the kingdom of God breaking into the world through you. They call us emerging leaders, and we had a lot of hopes for you.
We know you’re imperfect, but we are too. We were ready to stand up for racial justice, care for creation, and speak up for the marginalized. We thought you could too. We believed there was a reason you existed.
So forgive me if I seem selfish, but yes, I’m disappointed, and I don’t think I’m the only one. There are many of us who have been getting ready, and now we’ve missed the moment. Just when it feels like we’re ready with something to say, somebody turned the lights off.
I keep reading the Gospels and thinking about Jesus’ disciples. He keeps telling them that it’s time for him to die, and that his death isn’t the end, but it seems like every time Jesus speaks about his own death it just turns into static in their ears. “It can’t be! We had so many hopes for you, Jesus! You see, we’ve got all these plans, and if you die, we’ll just be left with this list of good ideas and broken hearts. Jesus, we gave up everything to follow you — you can’t die.”
Then there was a woman, before Jesus went up on the cross, who had a jar of perfume, and she emptied it and poured it on Jesus’ feet, and his disciples said “How foolish!” but Jesus said that she had done something beautiful.
Perhaps he had a point. What else can we do? In the face of impending death, is there anything left other than to love recklessly and create beauty? We could keep you going — cut down your mission budgets, pare down your staff, and ramp up the stewardship season. Maybe, just maybe we’ll get some flashy, charismatic leadership and install a coffee bar which is sure to bring in the 20-somethings. There’s some pretty clever Christian life-support out there now. But for what? For a few extra, gasping, frail years?
So we won’t get posh offices or fancy parsonages. So what? We’d rather you be like the woman with the perfume and be foolish. Take your grounds and turn it into a garden for the neighborhood. Ignore the peeling paint on your walls and let the children paint a mural over it. Give away your pews to make room for the homeless to have lunch. Do something beautiful.
Jesus knew the end of the story that the disciples didn’t, so perhaps there’s an end to your story that my friends and I can’t see yet. We emerging leaders want to walk alongside you still, even if you’re on the way out. So in your dying moments, trust in the Resurrection. Live beautifully and with no regard for survival. Instead of hiding from issues that might send members out of your pews, wrestle with the implications of the Gospel for the environment, for the death penalty, or for immigration. Trust in the mysterious, magnificent force that sees through death and makes all things new in self-sacrificial living.
If this is or isn’t the end, do what you came here to do. Love God without abandon, and love all God’s people with the same fervor. We’re here with you.
Chris Chatelaine-Samsen has been serving in youth ministry and is a soon-to-be pastor in the PC(USA). He has a M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and worships with the Church of the Saviour community in Washington, D.C., an ecumenical network of church communities and non-profits.
Image: Stained glass window & crucifix, benztsai / Shutterstock.com