By Ed Thompson
We don’t have a problem. In some ways, I wish we did because problems can be solved. It may take a while to figure out the solution, but, by definition, problems have a solution. We might also struggle to accurately define our problem or problems, but nevertheless, if we can do that, we can figure out how to solve them.
Gil Rendle suggests in his book Quietly Courageous that we’re not dealing with problems that can be solved; we‘re facing conditions that have changed. For example, having asthma is not a problem that can be solved; asthma is a condition that you learn to live with. There are medications that can ease its symptoms, but they don’t cure it. You learn to live with it. You figure out what triggers your outbreaks, what to eat or not eat, the best – or, I suppose, the worst – ways to exercise, and what impact the weather might have. You adjust. If you don’t, you will suffer. Maybe if you don’t adjust, it will kill you or at least make your life miserable.
The church is facing conditions that have changed. We no longer live in an era when not belonging to a church was an oddity, an exception to the rule. Now, it’s almost the other way around. People who belong to a church, or who attend worship regularly and support a congregation financially, are the exception. It’s also true that people will attend and contribute, yet never quite get around to becoming members. Conditions have changed. Yet, we haven’t adjusted our way of thinking or, more importantly, our way of doing church.
In some ways, the pandemic served as a blessing because it forced most of us to shift to having our worship services available online. Now, people can worship when it fits their schedule. If 11 a.m. on Sunday morning no longer suits them, they can still worship when they have the time. We might think they’re not participating in worship, but if they hear the word proclaimed, if they take part in the Lord’s Supper, if they’re moved to contribute financially, if they show up for some service project or a church picnic, or participate in a Bible study, maybe they’re doing more than someone who just shows up on Sunday morning, sits in a pew, and just stares out the window. (Although, maybe someone who’s doing that is evaluating their life, reflecting on their marriage, thinking about how to best support their children or how to help their parents make the transition out of their home and into assisted living or a nursing home. God may be moving in their lives in ways that we may not be aware of.)
Maybe we need to be more flexible in how we think about worship, participation, membership, and who might serve as ruling elders. If the church attracts people who worship solely online, and some of those folks want to join the church, it would make sense to allow them to take that step, and if we do, then maybe some of them should be elected as ruling elders.
Conditions have changed. We need to adapt. The pandemic also forced many of us to have session meetings and committee meetings online. Maybe that should continue. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such meetings are much more efficient. Having our meetings virtually might encourage younger members to participate because it allows them to stay at home with their family or at least be in the same room. It also might encourage older members who don’t like to drive at night to serve. We can no longer assume older members aren’t tech savvy enough to do this. Being able to connect with grandchildren and siblings who live across the country has encouraged an older generation to learn computer skills.
Maybe the pandemic has also opened our eyes to whether we actually need a building. That’s certainly the case for the presbytery. The staff functioned well when we were operating away from our offices. Selling it becomes an option we need to look at. Maybe selling your church building does too. Maybe you don’t need all that space. Although perhaps you might consider partnering with other groups or agencies so that the space you have is better utilized.
I would much rather see churches sell their buildings and become house churches or lease space that allows them to carry out their ministry rather than holding on to an aging building, deferring maintenance, and clinging to the hope that enough people might someday come back to justify having a building that size. Too often, churches hang on until enough people have died, and those who are left are worn out so that by the time they decide to close, they leave the presbytery a building that we cannot sell or even give away. When that’s the case, we will either have to have an auction, or we may have to pay for the building to be demolished. The funds to pay those costs will come out of our reserves, so that money that was intended for mission and to spread the gospel will be used to clean up the mess of people who were simply stubborn and unable to admit that conditions have changed.
Conditions have changed. What changes does your church need to make?