What Is To Be Done?

This afternoon I had back-to-back appointments that painted the present situation of the mainline Protestant church in North America with startling clarity. I’ll describe them in the opposite order from the order in which they happened.

A funeral planning meeting with the family of a person who taught for 38 years at the local high school and joined our congregation shortly after arriving in town during the 1960’s. The family fondly recalled the high value this person placed on church participation. “You didn’t have a choice,” one of them said. “You had to go to church.” This person led family camps, taught Sunday School, and treated the church as an extension of her own family, all, to hear her family tell it, was to the great benefit to them and church.

But also a lunch with a young professional in the congregation who has moved back into the area several years after attending high school here and participating in all of the high school youth group activities. He’s raising a family here now and working hard to succeed at his job. His spouse, too, is working hard to succeed at her job.  He’s exhausted. The faith he confirmed in high school doesn’t resonate anymore. And the community of the church that so sustained the person described above? Mostly it doesn’t look like him. It doesn’t know how to engage him without requiring more work of him.

The community of the first person isn’t equipped to care for and engage the faith of the second person.

What’s to be done?


20 thoughts on “What Is To Be Done?

  1. I’m not sure I have an answer–but here is an observation. The faith that “sustained” the first person sounds like it was a lot of work.
    I get the reality that people are tired–that’s why we are starting our Sabbath worship. But I also suspect the reason the faith of the first person sustained them is because they had some sweat equity in it. He had those relationships because he spent time on them.
    I’m not saying the second person needs to work more. But are they willing to put in the time to build the relationships that can sustain faith?

    • Your observation is spot on, but when the second person says that everything else in his life demands work of him and that he needs the church to be a place where he can be on the receiving end for a minute, I wonder if that’s just a new cultural norm for families with kids and two full time workers.

      • Yeah. I wonder that too. But I still wonder how connected people can end up being with a church when they don’t have the time and energy to be active in the community and mission of the church. What is church then? Theater? A show they watch?

      • That question troubles me too. Because large multi-staff churches can employ staff to run age segregated programs for an infinite number of smaller communities, but what are people getting out of those in terms of long term faith formation and relationship building?

      • I’ve been where the second person is, though, and I ran away from the DIY ethos of the small church in favor of a bigger community with lots of people my age.

      • I think the answer lies somewhere in “meaningful work”. There’s a difference between punching the clock on committees, programs, etc. and engaging in active, powerful ministry to others. Do I groan heading out the door to those ministries sometimes because I’m tired? Yep. But I rarely regret engaging. It’s a fine line…there are absolutely times I want to “receive” (and the work-a-holic church needs to identify and respect that), but we can’t underestimate the power and purpose of engagement in community and service.

  2. Hm. A teacher with the security of a tenured job has a certain type of community involvement built in. A teacher can rely on having weekends off, and not getting calls from different time zones. “young professionals” have a different experience.

    A beaver knows how to make dams. Put them on the roof of a skyscraper they start chewing and making a dam. So. Ambitious young professionals work hard. We almost don’t know how to do anything else. And church (as modelled by the 1960s schoolteacher) looks like work.

    The young professionals, of whom I am one, need to learn to live the grace of the gospel. Faith not work(s)…Right? How can the church NOT exploit it’s members, but instead sustain them?

    Personal maxim: NOBODY is going to tell me I’m working too hard. That applies most to work and church.

    It’s up to me to draw the boundaries. And if I’m not good at saying no…I don’t trust church (read: MYSELF) as a place I can be without giving too much.

    • Murphy, bear in mind that bit about saying “no” when I email you later today 🙂

      Here’s a question related to your insight. The church as modeled by the 1960’s schoolteacher looks like work, and it is. Do we, its heirs, enable young professionals now to do the work they want to do through the church? Or does it just look like, if you’re going to participate here, you’ve got to pitch in on all the things the schoolteachers did?

  3. MSchramm says:

    “needs the church to be a place where he can be on the receiving end”
    This is problematic, as I’ve found we are best equipped to receive after we have given. Should I expect a dividend if I have not made the investment? Should I expect to be in the starting lineup if I don’t go to practice? Should I be surprised if I feel unprepared for a test if I chose not to study ahead of time?
    I get the impulse here, the tiredness, the need for refuge and respite. But I also remember something along the lines of “take my yoke upon you and learn of me… and ye shall find rest for your souls.” Hmmm. Rest for your soul isn’t independent of the yoke?
    Good thoughts, Rock.

    • Thanks Matt. Your considerations are the first ones I had after my conversation. But I’m wondering where the greater risk/opportunity is. Is there a greater risk that, by insisting that he put some skin in the game, he’ll just disappear? Or is there a greater opportunity that by insisting on that he’ll realize the value in the investment?

  4. I don’t know if I have anything to add, but I am grateful to see a space where (at least in this case) a thorny problem is being questioned and explored with civility and grace.

    • courtney says:

      What Charles said. Thanks (to Rocky and all of you) for giving us something think (and talk) about, and for doing both so gracefully.

  5. Dave McG. says:

    Without question this young family needs to be on the receiving end! They need to be on the receiving end of love, grace and nurturing in their faith. It is only with the gift and development of faith that the desire to share that grace and faith we’ve been given wells up within us. Have we elders spent so much time carrying on the traditions, programs and activities of the church that we’ve forgotten ourselves how much better it is to give the gifts that have the greatest meaning than it is to receive the labor of others? Perhaps this young family is a gift of faith to your congregation that you no longer recognize?

  6. The congregation I serve has something we call “abiding.”. When a member or a visitor needs space or quiet time I just put out the word that he or she needs to abide. We have used this when folk go to graduate school, when a person has been bruised by another church or the presbytery, and when a family member needs extraordinary help. Those who abide are invited to do or not do what they choose. They sometimes volunteer for something but they are not recruited. Pastoral care and support are provided. Surprisingly, this has not been abused in the 12 years we have offered it. It is a low key aspect of our congregation – not often discussed but respected. Some have abided and moved on. Many have abided and slowly moved into active participation in the life of our church.

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