I picked up on a theme from audience members’ comments at a conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes I attended last week.
The comments were made randomly—one here, two there—regardless of workshop topic and during the breaks between sessions.
Here’s a sampling:
“Our church building is old and beautiful, and we don’t have the resources to maintain it. If we don’t find new members and new sources of revenue, I don’t know what will happen to the building.”
“The Church is dying.”
“I miss the days when we had scores of children in church, tons of programs, and a big clergy staff. I wonder if we’ll ever see those days again?”
The theme I hear? Death and dying, loss and grief, fear and hopelessness.
Searching for a Lost Era
Today, many people walk through quiet church halls.
Classrooms are empty of adult education sessions. On Sundays there’s enough room in the pews between worshipers that whole families could fill them—but they don’t.
But many remember former days when church pews were filled, adults shushed boisterous children’s voices in the halls, and parish budgets supported glorious edifices that were built to glorify God.
Many comments reflect nostaligic yearning for those glory days of yore.
For many long-term church members and clergy, those are the days they would like to reclaim. There’s an undercurrent of loss and frustration with the present. A wistfulness for those days to be recaptured again—if only.
If only the right children’s program…
Or right evangelism tool…
Or right marketing strategy were used...
There’s an almost magical thinking happening that believes the solution to declining membership is out there: it’s elusive, but it exists and we just have to keep searching until we find it.
In other words, we’re searching for an era that has passed as if it were still available to us today.
But is it?
Fear of the Future
The Church is changing so dramatically that many say we’re entering a Second Reformation. There’s a lot in flux within the Church right now, with more questions than answers.
What does it mean to be a post-modern church?
What does it mean when so many people are “spiritual but not religious?”
Are clergy really necessary to perform the duties of the church?
Shouldn’t members of the church be “doing church” out in the communities instead of inside old buildings with impossible maintenance costs?
Science doesn’t support religion, so why should people believe in biblical “fairy tales?”
These are questions that require our attention, but I sense something underneath it all that fuels the urgency we feel to find answers.
There’s an undercurrent of fear that the Church we know and love will be no more.
As a result, I see people becoming entrenched in “the way we do things around here.” It’s a rigidity that shuts down creative possibilities as not “realistic.”
Even when long-time parishioners recognize the need to invite more people to come to church, and those invitees accept, they can act a bit annoyed if newcomers dare to offer their own ideas!
This grief over what has been and fear over what’s to come is not new. In fact, this portion of the first choice of readings from Joel for Ash Wednesday sums up the dread I sense in the church air.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near--
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them
in ages to come.
It captures the longing for a “golden age” that people are afraid won’t return, and a fear about what the future of the Church might hold.
And this grief and fear related to changes in The Church is a taste of the grief and fear our listeners feel about all kinds of change and loss.
Change—and its attendant grief and loss—can feel like darkness, gloom, and storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, which makes Ash Wednesday the perfect time to explore those feelings in our sermons.
Four Tips to Preach Through Change, Loss, & Grief this Ash Wednesday
1. Identify and Name Your Listeners’ Fears
What do you hear from your parishioners? During Bible studies, committee meetings, and pastoral visits, are people voicing their longings for the past and concerns about the future? What might be the fear under the fear? That is, underneath the nostalgia and fear of the future are deeper questions.
Regarding the changing church, they may be asking questions like:
Will the Church still have a place for me?
Will my children and grandchildren have a community of faith to support them?
What will happen to people’s faith if there’s no congregation left to help them learn it?
2. Put the Fear in Perspective
Change is perpetual and inevitable. It’s not new. As individuals, your parishioners have been through difficult times; what helped them then? Collectively, your congregation has probably been through tough times, too. So has the Church as a whole.
Ask them: when the changes came, what happened? What took them by surprise? How did they make the transition? Where was God during that time? Where is God now?
Looking to the past can help us look ahead to the future. It can help us recall that God never leaves nor abandons us. The change may not have been a welcome one, but God helped us through then and will help us through again now.
3. Look to Hope
Hope is extraordinarily dangerous.
Hope is dangerous because it refuses to trust that the present reality is as good as it’s ever going to get.
Hope keeps imaginations alive, hearts alight, and creativity within reach.
Hope refuses to settle.
Yes, we are entering uncertain times, but uncertainty unleashes the possibilities of alternate futures. It gives us the will and necessity to invent the reign of God we say we’re trying to build.
Systems get unlocked. The “way we’ve always done things” breaks open to allow for new ways. Wagons we circled to protect ourselves get stretched open to welcome new blood.
In God, all things are possible, right? So if we had the freedom to “design” the reign of God in our midst, what might that look like?
Hope prepares us to permit God’s wild imagination to re-create the here and now.
4. Be Not Afraid
It’s one of the most common sentences in Scripture. Now’s the time to practice it!
Why does God tell us over and over not to be afraid?
Because we already know the end of the story.
We have already died, right? In the waters of baptism we died to our old lives and were raised to the new ones to the “sure and certain hope” of the Resurrection. In Christ we have died. We have been risen. And we will be risen again.
This is the pattern throughout Scripture, the story God tells again and again.
Where there is death, there will be resurrection.
If things are dying off, we can trust they will rise again. God wastes nothing but uses all to make God’s presence known.
So what outcome do we fear if God will be as much a part of something new as God has always been in what is familiar?
To be sure, the process of dying and rising may be difficult.
But the messy middle is a lot easier to endure if we know the end will come out all right, and is all right now, because God is with us.
Whether the transition takes us to the depths of Sheol or the highest heaven, the night will be as bright as the day because the glory of God is and will be the same as it ever was.
Be. Not. Afraid.
This Ash Wednesday, then, say it out loud.
Talk about your listeners’ fears of death and dying, of the pain of shedding the past but being released to build a future in God’s image. Cast a vision for the holiness of hope and trust that helps us not to be afraid.
That will make for a holy Lent indeed.
We’ll be covering these topics and more during the two week seminar:
The Gospel People Don’t Want to Hear: How to Preach Challenging Messages So They’re Heard
Thursdays, February 28th & March 7th, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. CST
There are times the Gospel does not offer easy answers. To better understand how God moves through difficult texts and circumstances, please join us for a two-session seminar based on my forthcoming book by the same title, The Gospel People Don't Want to Hear: How to Preach Challenging Messages So They’re Heard.*
the backstories behind challenging messages (that is, what makes challenging messages challenging)
how to build trust with listeners so they’re willing to listen to challenging messages
and how to craft sermons that can be heard.
By the end of the second session, you’ll have stronger skills and more tools to preach the sermon messages your listeners need to hear but may not want to—in a way that allows them to welcome the Good News.