By Ed Thompson
Other than a shared dislike of broccoli, I don’t have much in common with former President George H.W. Bush. I am certainly not going to jump out of an airplane on my 90th birthday – or any birthday – or any day of the week that ends in the letter “y.”
However, in his 1989 inaugural address, President Bush spoke “of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the nation, doing good.” I think the churches in this presbytery qualify as points of light.
I find myself discouraged when I look at the statistics of this presbytery. Since we were organized in 1987, we’ve closed more than 30 churches, and our churches have lost more than 14,000 members. I get discouraged when I think about how long it takes for many of our churches to find new pastors. Sometimes, it takes more than three years.
However, when I visit churches and I see the smiles and hear the laughter, when I listen to their stories about their food banks, the meals they sponsor and the ways they’re active in their communities, my spirits lift. I am encouraged. We’re doing good things, lots of good things. We’re touching lives. We’re making a difference in our communities. We’re points of light, reflecting the one we know as the light of the world. Jesus would be pleased.
Whether we’re encouraged or discouraged comes down to perspective. When we think about the past – what we used to be, what we used to do – we can get discouraged. I think if I hear one more story about how we used to set up chairs in the aisle to accommodate the crowds on Christmas Eve and Easter, I’m going to scream. I know it’s true. I watched it happen. That was a part of my childhood. But that was a long time ago. At this point, I could say it was a long, long time ago. Those days aren’t coming back.
However, we can take pride in what we’re doing now. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it better. Nor does it mean that we have to keep on doing everything that we have been doing. Sometimes, events run their course. People get tired of doing the chili supper or the pancake breakfast, but they’re afraid to say anything. While guilt can be a great motivator, we probably use it too often. More than once a year probably qualifies as too often. “No” is an acceptable answer to the question, “Do you want to help with this event?” It’s also a legitimate answer to the question, “Do you think we should do this again next year?” We need to stop confusing busyness with faithfulness. They’re not the same thing.
Maybe more than that we can begin to dream about what we might need to do differently. What’s changed in our neighborhood and in our community? How is the membership of our congregation different than it used to be? Maybe we need to sponsor a support group for cancer patients or a support group for parents of kids with autism. Maybe we need to invest in a better speaker system or better lighting. Maybe we need to put up signs directing people to the bathrooms or the sanctuary or the fellowship hall. Maybe we need to have large print bulletins. Maybe we need to have gluten-free bread for communion. Maybe we need to think about selling our building to move into a smaller one or one that has better parking or better accessibility. Maybe we’re at a point where we can sell the building and have worship in someone’s home. Maybe we can take turns talking about where we’ve seen God at work in our lives this past week rather than paying for pulpit supply. Maybe we need to offer space for a Narcotics Anonymous group and ask what we can do to help support them instead of complaining about the cigarette butts in the parking lot or that the janitor has to vacuum the carpet in the parlor twice a week. Maybe we need to talk to the principal at the local elementary school to see if there are ways we might be helpful to their students or teachers. Maybe we could offer one student in each class a scholarship to attend a week of camp at Bluestone.
The future will be different than the past. Can we use the time and the energy we have to create a different kind of church? Or maybe even though it will look different in terms of size and programs, the church still reflects God’s love and still cares for the people who gather together there. So in reality, some things will remain even though others will be different and need to be different.
But I’m still not going to jump out of an airplane.