For almost two years I have been a part of a group that has met to discuss the future of the ELCA in Northwest Ohio. I found myself accepting an invitation to this group via the Bishop and his staff in the Spring of 2020, and the idea was we would meet with a Methodist pastor that has grown a part of their church planting wing. This wing is called, Fresh Expressions. The idea is, creating a church in places where church may not be normal. Cast the net wide, and see who you can get to come. It’s a great concept, and one that (in one way or another) I’ve been practicing for a long time.
This past weekend was supposed the last meeting we had together in this cohort, however the snow storm that came through cancelled that get together. Originally this post was supposed to be a reflection of that last meeting, and some of the notes that went with the experience. However, in leu of that, I thought I would keep it short and share some of the things that have been discussed around that group over the past (almost) two years.
- Working in the inherited church is hard. Let’s be honest, working in the church is hard in general, but there is something about working in a mainline denomination that cranks up the difficulty. From collapsing buildings, dying congregations, to gatekeeping church members, it is really hard. The phrase, it’s always been this way, may be the thing I have grown to hate the most in my life, because anytime you want to do something differently that is the answer that’s been given.
- Most of us have no idea what we are doing. There is a new era of church that we are fumbling through, and failing spectacularly in. The amount of people that think, if we continue doing what we have always done, then everyone will come back. Which is not the case, and in most situations has never been a realistic expectation. This is has always been the struggle I have had about promoting what our respective religious institutions are doing. There is a balance between exploitation and getting the word out that we are here to help, some are doing it well, some are not.
- The building is not the church. The only thing that had been consistently open when we had our building closed down was our food pantry. In fact, we added a second food pantry. There were a number of other churches I am aware of that were closed but kept their outreach programs going (food, clothing, etc.) because people were relying on it, and these were easy to keep within the CDC recommendations. There were a number of people who left our congregation because we closed down because the “church was closed.” This was something quite a few of us talked about at these gatherings, and that the perception is the church is only what happens on Sunday.
This has never been true. When a church is at its best and healthiest, it has nothing to do with a Sunday morning worship experience. Growth, care, and love do not come from the pulpit, they come from the empowered people who are trying to make their corner of the world a better place.
- A virtual community is a valid community. I will not elaborate on this.
- Context matters. Knowing your surroundings and listening to the needs of those around you will help you go much farther in serving than taking a parental stance and assuming what others need.
- Failure is not a bad thing. Church buildings close down every week. People leave. That thing you started isn’t successful by whatever your standards you’re holding it to. That is okay, there is nothing wrong with that. It sucks, but that is how it goes sometimes. Take what was good, what you learned, and start over.
One of the great things to come out of these meet ups is that, I have found validation of not being completely off track. I tend to fall into a cycle of despair at times when all I have are the negative voices, or the people who are waiting for whatever I’m launching to fail (even though they will never admit it). Having a group of people from different contexts all around Northwest Ohio has been invaluable, not only for my self-esteem but for reconsidering various ministries I had considered working in.
May you surround yourself with those who are willing to challenge you, build you up, and those who are not afraid to tell you the truth.
Grace and peace.