Part of the conversation begun by Syd Hielema’s essay The Church of Jesus in 2047: Life After the Decade from Hell, and then continued by Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Jason Lief, Tim Van Deelen, Laura de Jong, and Debra Rienstra.
It’s those three steps down off the alley that are the killer. If I can make it down them, I’ll be okay. I’ll need a walker soon enough. Not sure what I’ll do then.
On Sunday mornings someone hangs a woeful, hand-lettered sign on the handrail. ‘’Church” — you have to be looking for it to notice.
Our church meets in the basement beneath a pub. The rent is free. The pub belongs to the wife of our pastor, Paloma. Once I’m down those three steps, I’m sort of fond of our space. It feels a bit like meeting in the catacombs. But instead of being surrounded by skulls and sarcophagi, we’re surrounded by beer kegs and cleaning products. Some of the more vibrant members show up early to set up the folding chairs and tables.
We worship in Spanish. I won’t kid you, that’s hard for me. My Spanish is lousy and improves only infinitesimally. I can sing the songs, at least the choruses. I can recite much of the liturgy. I only get bits and pieces of the sermon, but that’s okay. I half believe that I’ve heard and given enough sermons for one lifetime. Still, Pastor Paloma is a good preacher, a good pastor. She’s smart and savvy. Theologically educated, but she can’t live on her measly salary here. I’m not sure the social service agency where she works pays her much better.
If Roman Catholics could worship in Latin for centuries, I can worship in Spanish. It’s not the first language of many others here either. It is simply a common denominator. For really the first time ever in a church setting, Sophie, my wife, is able to use her French with the West Africans in the congregation. Our worship is somewhere between Pentecostal and Episcopal. Songs are usually accompanied by guitar, piano, flute, and tambourine. We share the Sacrament weekly. Language matters less there.
Do I miss singing “O for a Thousand Tongues” or “A Mighty Fortress” with a magisterial organ and 400 voices? Yes, sometimes. Two or three times a year, we’ll go to the once-upon-a-time big downtown church for that. The organ is still there, just not 400 voices. Sometimes it can make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Other times it just feels passe and pathetic.
Of course, there are other churches around. Fundamentalists are still here, even if a bit down on their luck. I’m so old I remember the first time they were odd and unpopular. Then I saw their ascendancy with claims that size equals success, growth is God’s favor, and “our land is God’s land.” Now that things have shifted again, they’re back to playing the “faithful remnant/fallen is Babylon” card.
I don’t want to make us sound too rag-tag and eccentric. Yes, we have three or four local guys who often show up, whose housing situation and other details are a bit uncertain. But we also have families with kids. Professionals and immigrants. Blue collar and white collar. Uber-committed and less so. Good people. Impressive and kind. Loving and lovable. No one is here unless they want to be. No social chips to be gained.
On a good Sunday we might have an attendance of 100. A cold Sunday in January, 40-50? After worship, we share a meal. Sort of potluck with some food brought down from the upstairs pub. Not everyone stays. Even fewer stay for the time of prayer, Bible study, and discussion after the meal. Maybe 20. But we have good, rich conversations. The church doesn’t have any “programs” to speak of. We’re too small for that, plus we don’t have any space. But I think the vast majority of our congregation serves in all sorts of ways throughout the week.
No more do we hear that ludicrous claim that it’s the church’s task, not the state’s, to care for the poor. We have no illusion of striving for systemic solutions or seeking radical justice. No one thinks to ask what the church might say about the issues of the day. Band-aids, compassion, generosity, and a few fingers in the dam are our goals.
I remember when I was young. We were so excited about the impending end of Christendom. No more insipid invocations at public events or flags in church sanctuaries. That, plus much more, is all gone now. I wouldn’t wish it back. Still back then, we didn’t fully realize the pain, maybe more the humiliation, of becoming insignificant, unheeded, and out of step. I guess we’re never very good at truly counting the cost of following Jesus.
The above is more fantasy than prediction. I don’t claim any prognosticating skills. At the risk of sounding pollyannaish and privileged, I wonder if this conversation isn’t a bit overly cataclysmic. That’s not to deny the impact of climate change, possible pandemics, social upheaval, or the fraying of democracy.
I’ve served my current congregation for almost twenty-four years. Of course, things have changed — a lot — in that near quarter-century. But in other ways things haven’t changed that much. We could say small town Iowa is a bubble, an anomaly. Our head is in the sand. Yes, but not completely.
I recall our time in rural upstate New York before that. Our church was over 200 years old and had been founded there because it was a stagecoach stop where horses were swapped out. Not necessarily green pastures for “church growth,” let alone survival. Such churches had seen and endured all sorts of change. The landscape was littered with former church buildings, now garages, galleries, apartments, and ruins — sort of like the one and two room school houses you can also still find. These churches didn’t close because they didn’t love Jesus or pray enough — as many critics claimed — but because the land emptied out. As for the churches that remain, it’s easy, too easy, to call them private chapels, stuck in the past, inward looking, and doing more maintenance than ministry. They aren’t without warts and wrinkles, but they are genuine, living churches.
All of which is to say that in my experience the church is more tenacious, resilient, and obstinate than given credit for. No doubt change — deep change — is underway. Ask me what the North American church will be like in 50 years. I wouldn’t hazard a guess.
The Son of God, through his Spirit and Word, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a church, chosen from the entire human race and united by true faith for everlasting life. This Christ has done from the beginning of the world, and will do to its end. (Heidelberg Catechism, answer 54)