Mixed Up Stories

You might be thinking, these are nice theological ideas, but they seem disconnected from the decisions we need to make for our congregation. We can’t wait. If we wait, we’ll be closed in a few months. If our car idles here any longer, it might start rusting. We understand the sentiment. Yet, this is exactly where things get mixed up. We seem so anxious that it confuses us about who is the star of the church’s story. Inside the anxiety and anger, we become obsessed with our own story. Anxious for the church, we make the church the star of its story. The church, and particularly the local congregation we care about, is all that matters. After all, we joined the council, leadership team, or session because we wanted to make sure this congregation survived. The most important thing, the very thing I should focus my attention on, is First Church of Somewhere’s survival. That’s what matters! That’s why I’m reading this book!

Our attention is laser-focused on the church for good reasons. We’re obsessed with making the church the star of its own story not because we’re narcissists but because we’re anxious. We fear that the church—the congregation we love—is going to miss out on the good things ahead. It’s about to lose funding, new members, and so much more. We remember decades ago when this congregation wasn’t so fragile, everything so much less tenuous. Even young churches remember how much easier it was to plant a church with large denomination support in a largely Christendom world. But now, if something isn’t done (by us!), we’ll be out in the cold. If we don’t focus intently on the church, if we don’t become obsessed with the congregation’s actions, we’ll lose our building and our pastor. If we don’t make our congregation the star of its own story and get moving faster and faster, we’ll be left with only memories and regrets.

Inside this anxiety it seems only right, even faithful and responsible, to give all our attention to the acts of the church. We need to do something and fast! We need solutions! Inside the anxiety to do something fast, waiting is a distasteful enemy. Ultimately, this anxiety confuses us.

But waiting is our friend. The only way we can survive is by waiting. Waiting puts our attention in the right place. When we forget to wait, we become too distracted, too impatient, too angry to see God’s action. The stories that form the church are about God’s actions. Attention ought not to be on the church but on the God who moves, the Jesus who lives, bringing life out of death. The church is the witness, the narrator, to the bigger story of God’s action to save the world.

We know of very few churches that intentionally turn away from God. They don’t do it on purpose. It happens because our attention is directed somewhere else and our secular imaginations don’t let us see that. With our attention on the anxiety to survive and the rush to do something, God is inevitably replaced as the star of the church’s story. It becomes so easy, particularly in our secular age, for God to be just a subplot of our congregational life. We’re so anxious that this becomes inevitable.

We can see some of your eyes rolling. Some of you may be scoffing at such pious statements about God. A few of you may even be choking on the abstraction. You’re thinking, “Right, this is all easy for you to say, but we have a leaking roof and an $80,000 deficit in our budget.” Or, “Sure, I love God, but we’re hemorrhaging members and can’t fill our open position for a pastor.” And you might add, “Look around. Churches are closing, our denomination is laying off staff, and we’re reading about studies that show fewer and fewer people are going to church. It’s bleak!”

It’s true, these are hard times for congregations because we are living in a difficult moment for the church. The twenty-first century has been a struggle for congregations. We’re not denying that. No Pollyanna here. But let’s have some perspective— that’s hard when you’re anxious. There have been much more difficult times for the church than the one we’re living through now. And the church survived. There have been periods of living under hostile political regimes (such as twentieth-century China), times of deep corruption (such as during the Borgias popes), situations of vicious division (such as the Thirty Years’ War). The church has lived through many periods of crisis. So let’s be faithful stewards—realistic, but not catastrophizing. A society-wide crisis such as oppression, corruption, and division takes our attention away from the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is created and sustained by Jesus Christ. From our vantage, the secular age that leads to acceleration is just a crisis, taking our attention away from the story of God and putting it squarely on the crisis of decline.

With Paul and the saints of the past, we believe that no power, principality, budget shortfall, or leaking roof can stop God from acting. The church is the body of the resurrected Christ, and no body can ignore its head and expect to get anywhere. The Holy Spirit, who creates, accompanies, and sustains the church through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of Jesus Christ, commands the church to wait. The church has its life in being together, experiencing the Spirit leading us into the world to love the world. We’re commanded to wait even in these hard times.

Content taken from When Church Stops Working by Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand, ©2023. Used by permission of Brazos Press.