Does every congregation have to last forever?


One of the tensions of church life is permanence versus flexibility. Of course we know that Jesus went from place to place gathering disciples, and that the first Christians were also missionaries, inspiring others to follow the Lord but then moving on to share the good news in other places. But it is also true that for a community to grow, it must have roots and stability. Congregations spend years (decades, centuries) passing down the Christian tradition, and churches become the physical manifestation of thousands of prayers and lives lived faithfully and joyfully. I recently heard someone refer to this as the 'Paul and Lydia' principle, from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul is traveling along, baptizing and making disciples everywhere. Lydia prevails upon him to come to her house and baptize its occupants, and urges him to stay. The church, ultimately, needs both Paul and Lydia to survive. It seems to me, though, that today's church is almost all Lydia. Established churches stay established, sometimes struggling to do so. And very few see their mission as the ones who travel. It makes me wonder if this imbalance is part of God's call to us to reconsider our life as the church in the 21st century. And it makes me wonder if some established congregations that are having a hard time articulating their mission or keeping up with the way things used to be may not be, in fact, receiving an invitation into a radical new mission. Or a really old one.

And yet, there seems to be an assumption in the mainstream church that once a congregation has a location and building, it needs to stay there forever. It seems almost inconceivable that an established community might decide that their particular ministry in this particular place might be complete, and they might now be called to something new. I am not speaking of churches that are essentially dead, the last few members heroically hanging in there until the inevitable moment that they can no longer continue. I wonder about places where there is still energy, still resources, still faithful leadership, but maybe also the feeling that we are doing the same thing over and over, with slightly less every year, and there is a sense of fatigue and a loss of overall purpose beyond maintaining the institution itself. I wonder what kind of adventure it might be if some of the them started considering a 'call to be Paul.' Some signs that I see:

Lots of churches close together, lots of places with no churches. Most of our traditional mainstream churches were built when the country was new, or the city they are located in is new (have you ever noticed how many old churches are on 'Church Street'?). Others were built during mid-20th century expansion in what was then the suburbs. But most cities have expanded for decades since then, and the pattern is left that there are usually a few congregations clustered in the inner city and first-ring suburbs, 10 miles or fewer apart, and then not much as you get further out from the center of town.

Too much time and energy spent on maintaining the buildings and grounds. 'The buildings are killing us.' This is a quote from a very dear friend who is a parish priest, and he is not alone. Church buildings are wonderful and church architecture is extremely important, but when the cost and effort of maintaining a structure and the land on which it sits is overwhelming a congregation and its clergy, it may be time to rethink whether to do so is really in service to the Gospel.

No sense of mission beyond 'us'. This is not about outreach. It is about the sense that everything must stay the same, just as we have always done it (which of course, can include those things we call 'outreach'). The same people are in charge and the same events occur at the same time every year. Tradition is what we are about as mainstream Christians. Stagnation can kill our spirits, however. Learning the difference is crucial.

A restless feeling that things could be different. I have been in some congregations where a few voices seem pretty agitated by the Holy Spirit. Where those in the pews are feeling that call to something different, something deeper, and the leadership, clergy and lay, are listening. Often, I hear these people say things like, 'if only we didn't have these bills to pay, obligations to keep, we could...' I have heard clergy wonder aloud what would happen if their buildings disappeared overnight (safely, in some kind of a Rapture-like scenario) and they themselves did not have to worry about their own pay, what they could do in the name do the Gospel.

I am starting to wonder if some of these congregations aren't hearing the call to be Paul (not all of them, we always need Lydia!). What kind of radical faith might it take to say, 'yes, we are selling the building and going to rent a much smaller space in a suburb that is growing or a town where there is no church'. Or even, 'we are no longer going to meet in the same place every week, or maybe we are not all going to meet in the same place. Maybe our congregation will divide into four groups and go in four different directions. Maybe we will go out in pairs and each meet six new people and start praying in coffee shops or each others' homes'. Or even, 'we are going to share our resources with the church nearest us, so that together we will have enough energy and money to accomplish some of the ministry we talk about when we say, 'if only...'.'

Again, this seems almost inconceivable to me, and that in itself makes me wonder why. It makes me wonder what it would be like for congregations to consider this as a thought experiment. I worked with one congregation who did decide to stop and reconsider their existence altogether, whether they should stay in the inner-ring suburb they could no longer afford, a place far from the city's main streets and hard to find. And then soon enough, an amazing set of opportunities came to them: a neighboring school wanted to buy their buildings and land. At the same time, through a parishioner, they had the opportunity to buy a relatively cheap piece of land in a rapidly expanding new suburb 20 miles to the south. At first they could not believe this coincidence - the Holy Spirit! - and started making new plans. Ultimately though, they decided not to move. They could not bring themselves to face the sadness of losing their space, the one they had always been in. And they were afraid not everyone in the congregation would go with them. And so they stayed. And continue to struggle and decline.

I am not sure how this situation would have gone, of course, had they made the opposite choice. But I felt sad for them that they chose not to embark on the adventure set before them. And I continue to believe that some congregation, somewhere, is, in fact, answering the call to something radically new, something drawing them away from the established, in search of where the Spirit leads them. Even if it means no longer being a congregation the way we understand it. The call to be Paul. This could be the time to answer it.