A Lenten Disclaimer
--Pastor Jamey Nichols
Our traditional Lenten gathering this year will feature a book study on a 2008 publication by Gordon MacDonald entitled, Who Stole My Church? Despite being 10-years old, the instructional novel is remarkably timely. It is also fascinatingly relevant. Every church faces changes, and ours is no exception. Who Stole My Church? is a creative way to address the inevitably of cultural and institutional shifts without being overly technical. Did I mention it was a novel?
One of the fun features of MacDonald’s book is that he writes it from the perspective of the pastor (a profession which has been his life) and his congregation and some of the changes they face together in their small church. Like us, MacDonald’s fictional congregation is cross-generational with a heavy tip toward the over-60 crowd. And like us, the personalities of the parishioners are all over the map. Each one cares about their little church, but they don’t all see eye-to-eye about changes in things like music styles or the church name. The conversations stirred up this Lenten season could carry on for months.
Stir up. That’s an interesting expression. It leans negative, doesn’t it—at least in contexts other than kitchens? When the term “stirs up” is used in conversation about church dynamics, one’s mind is immediately carried to the phrase’s ubiquitous collocate, “trouble.” Stirs up trouble. After our lovely Judy Johnston got a couple chapters into the text, she grinningly said to my wife, Michelle something like, “Uh-oh. Jamey’s opening a can of worms!” Does talk about change necessarily involve cans of worms getting stirred up? It doesn’t have to. And, what is going on inside that head of the pastor? Is he getting FCC ready for some kind of big change he intends to foist upon the congregation leaving everyone to wonder, “Who stole my church?”
Unfortunately, (or, fortunately, depending on your perspective), cutting edge transformation on a large scale has never been my thing. I’m not terribly progressive. I’m a conservative in many ways and, by definition, I conserve. I conserve traditions, values, practices, and beliefs. We have dishes we use for every-day that match the partial set I inherited from great-grandmother*. Why buy new when we can use the old? I conserve. No, there is no master scheme for whole-sale changes to FCC . . . not that I have, anyway. But, culture? Now that’s another story.
Who Stole My Church? is a book about FCC. Like thousands of other traditional rural congregations, FCC has weathered a storied history of American progress. Look at our country in terms of its art, architecture, education, technology, music, fashion, retail, automobiles, bathrooms, colors, flooring, and on and on. When FCC was born in 1874, we were born for a purpose and to meet a specific need. One must wonder what exactly that original need was, does it still exist, and what if anything has changed? What happens to the profile of an institution with a life-span that touches three different centuries? Does it change? Dare it change? Must it?
Depending on your outlook, the answers to such questions will vary. For this conservative pastor, the only thing I truly care about is the question, “What must never change?” God, our Lord, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever is unchanging. In theology we call that God’s immutability. For Christianity as a faith, and the church as its corporate expression, I’m reading through our Lenten book wondering not what will change, but what cannot change? In other words, what shifts can Christianity tolerate and still be Christian? I’m talking about the kind of biblical Christianity that can span millennia, culture and language. I’m talking about faith that rings true in the one place that anything true ever rings right—the mind of God.
Last month I wrote about dying churches. I don’t want FCC to die—not in my lifetime or any other. In order not to die, I think all churches must learn to bend. Those that resist culture will die of old age. Those that conform to culture will burn out quickly like cable-knit turtle necks, flower-power, and big band music. Those that learn who they are in the heart of God and how that heart needs to be expressed best in the day and age and vicinity of where they operate—these are those that will carry on.
Won’t you join us for our study each Wednesday? We’d love to have your participation in what will prove to be a series of epic discussions.
*The dishes are Courier and Ives, winter scene. They belonged to my father’s grandma, Hazel, after whom we affectionately named our amazing labradoodle.