Getting our Story Right

Getting our Story Right

Nov. 16, 2012 by George Martin


Getting our Story Right

(The following mediation is adapted from a consultation report originally addressed to a church that starting over again. It is in the process of selling its large building and moving to a storefront location which is in the downtown of their community. )

The task ahead is to define the church’s story in the light of the Gospel story, and the peculiar way in which Christians are out of step with the world. We live in a world that is always thinking of new frontiers and new adventures. Our collective worldly eyes are on what’s the latest invention and gadgets. In the world of decision-making we wants to know what works or what is the best process is to follow. Believing human freedom is not only the highest goal, but that we all have rights and privileges the emphasis is on progress and happiness, expecting each person to discover their own place in this world.

The church is quite different. We live retrospectively, not prospectively. This means that we’re always looking back to a formative story which in its most basic framework declares that what God did in Christ is decisive for the way we are called to live our lives.  We are strangers to this world because we don’t need much to be the people of God. “What’s next?” isn’t our question.  With a little water for Baptism, some bread and wine for Eucharist, and our memories of the stories of God, we basically have all that is needed to be a community. We have practices of stewardship and mutual service—practices that involve sacrifice—and ministry with those who can never repay us. Such practices stand in stark contrast to the ways of the world. We are, to use a term coined by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, “resident aliens” in this world. To say we have a “church home” is really a misnomer. We have a “church family” to be sure, but home is wherever that family gathers.

What’s often missing in the Christian Church, as many of us know it, is a focused mindfulness on the core principles that define us as a people of God. To be sure, in the usual day-to-day church life, we often focus on doing things “correctly” or in the “right order” but we fail to understand why it is that we have these practices. We assume that everyone “just knows or understands” what’s happening. In one sense that’s usually correct if all we desire is that we treasure these practices. Such high estimation is often given to our worship, music, and facilities and this is especially so for those who’ve been members for some time. Many of these wonderful experienced Christians, however, would be hard pressed to explain, however, why it is that we do what we do?

I know of a church where many know that things need to be changed—but it’s a process that must also be grounded in a faith that isn’t about “what’s next?” but which knows we’re “called” to something new by the God who loves us and sees our future. The story this church is called to tell, is therefore, not “business as usual.” In their case it means selling their current building and moving to a storefront location in their small town—basically starting all over again.

The call before them is to be honest about what was “business as usual”—maybe for the last twenty years. Their story was marked by fewer and fewer members. Then, for a least a few years, there was a kind of burst of income as fewer people, determined to see the church survive, dramatically increased their level of financial support. [Note: that’s a classic sign of trouble known to many who study congregations in decline.] The average age of the congregation increased. Actually this church still has some children and it has an active group of teenagers—thus a major difference in the way this story is usually told. With a building that has become something of a burden to the congregation, having been built for a large congregation— now suffering from maintenance that’s been deferred and with extremely high utility costs never envisioned when the church was built—they have a church building that is “For Sale.”

“Business as Usual” if that’s the correct phrase to use for the past two decades at this church, and many like it, has been marked by determined lay people seeking to stop the slide. A constant thought was to find just the right rector. None of those clergy who came, though, saved the church [Please note that the real Savior may have been lost in this whole process.] On the part of some church members there was the perception that the diocese was also at fault, with some assuming [without evidence I believe] that the diocese would be happy to see the parish die so it could have the money leftover. The congregation became smaller and smaller. Many faithful members have died; others have moved away. Some left in anger, some simply needing something more fulfilling. Most telling of all is that few new people came to share in this church story. If this church had stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange it’s main story would have been its falling stock price. It’s hard to find investors when this happens. There’s one major exception, however! It’s the mission story told over and over in Christian history.…….

Starting Over—With the One Who Wants to Live With Us

We don’t want the right people! We don’t want good people! We don’t want successful people! And we don’t need rich people! The thoughts of Sara Miles, author of Jesus Freak are worth repeating in this context:

“But Jesus is right here with me and the crazy guy—the lowly and unprepared, as the prophets foretold. Among the weak, faithless, and doubting, as his disciples proved, then and now. He doesn’t look for the most “religious,” the most doctrinally correct, or, for that matter, the smartest of his beloved people to build his kingdom, but hands over authority to anyone willing to suspend self-doubt and simply trust Jesus’ faith in us. There is no other authority on earth we have to wait for, no permission we need in order to act on his words. All it takes to be a Jesus freak is to follow him.”

My advice to the church with the “For Sale” sign is that in moving to a storefront location is also needs to reframe its story as a gospel story—not a new gospel, but a retelling of the gospel story in the  New Testament. It is the narrative of our lives told over and over again, repeated and made new again for the sake of God, and for the sake of those who will rejoice as the blind man Bartimaeus did when healed by Jesus. It is also for those who will invite others as that woman at the well in Samaria did who had all those husbands and had such a lousy reputation. Those clear windows on the front of the storefront location of this church that is starting over again ought to be a sign that this church is trading stained-glass windows that reflect and distort light for a view of what’s happening in the real world. As I will also emphasize those windows will allow others to look inside, which can’t be easily done with stained-glass windows.

It’s important that the people of this church begin to find some new models of faith and faithfulness—but not from their recent past, and certainly not from the ranks of the ordained. As a retrospective people with a genealogy stretching back to Adam and Eve, we do our best when we find our models in Holy Scripture, and there in a marvelous kind of honesty we discover those touched by God—some who had tremendous doubt, others with eyes that lusted, a few with feet that traveled away from God, and those with hands that grasped at power when the real story was about sacrifice and service. The story told in many churches is about the clergy who came, who left, and who had feet of clay—Gospel honesty requires us to note that the particular failures of various clergy leaders nearly always pale in comparison with the stories from Holy Scripture.  We must remember that God also entrusted the keys to the kingdom into the hands of Peter who would betray Jesus, the spread of the gospel into the hands of Paul who tried to stamp out the early Christian movement, and the message of Easter into women who’s veracity would clearly be doubted simply because they were women in a world where their voice didn’t matter.

The Models Needed for A New Start: Those Who’ve Been Reconciled to God by Christ

At the heart of what lies ahead for this church to be reborn must be reconciliation as a fact and as a regular practice in worship and parish life. I think it’s essential to always have confession at the Sunday Eucharist. [The Easter season can be an exception. If it’s properly explained!] More than simply saying the words, we need an awareness of what we are saying in the confession itself, what the absolution is about, and how the Peace is shared.

Sharing the Peace of Christ: In many churches the sharing of the Peace has a kind of raucous flavor as the buzz and the level of conversations begin to sound like a high school reunion. Some feel a need to give everyone a hug and in the process to pay special attention to a few friends, or maybe someone they haven’t seen in a while. The casual visitor to such a church may feel over-whelmed with the attention given, or, in contrast, they may basically be ignored except for a few per forma handshakes. Such boisterous expressions of community become a kind of signature hallmark for some churches and its members will often happily declare, “This is just the way we are.” [In truth, many aren’t always that happy except for this brief moment of time.]

The overly exuberant time of Peace becomes, in many churches, a kind of intermission in the liturgy which never is a performance requiring such a break. One lay person told me, on the Sunday I served as the visiting supply priest, while the laughter reached the rafters of the church during a swirling time of the peace, “Good luck, in getting them to calm down, and hear the words of the offertory.” My call to order wasn’t happily received. The passing of the Peace, if it is more like a social hour, is disturbing because it’s true significance is lost in the bustle, the smiles, and hugs. Let me explain.

Liturgy is the way we tell the story of who we are in God’s world, and the story of God in our world. We’re in dialogue with our tradition in all aspects of worship, and we are there to be shaped, formed (indeed, transformed) for living this story once more upon the Dismissal that sends us back into the world. From the moment were called into worship to the conclusion that sends us from worship we’re inside a conversation with the story of God and we are being invited to all the different ways this story can be the way God lives in our lives.

So what happens in that middle part of the Eucharist that begins with an invitation to offer Confession and which then leads to invitation to come to the Lord’s Table, beginning with the offering of gifts? There is, first of all, the rubric, following the invitation to confession, that silence may be kept. In my experience this rubric is often ignored. I believe, it should be respected. We’re invited to make a kind of public commitment rarely heard in any other part of life. Imagine the members of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. starting their deliberations with a time of Confession! It probably will never happen, but I think it might serve to improve our common life if it did.

Rarely have I heard preachers unpack the actual words of the confession, but I think it’s important for us to realize that were not there as individuals bringing up a list of personal sins that need to be addressed.  The prayer doesn’t use the personal pronouns “I” or “Mine”. This prayer of confession is about sins of commission and omission that are shared by all in the community. “We confess…our sins…” We’re all in need of the absolution about to come, and all in need of some visible way of expressing our unity under the umbrella of God’s grace. That’s what The Peace is all about. Essentially the Prayer of Confession is saying, we, who are here inside this story of God, know how it is that we should live with each other and for the sake of others in this world. We may have failed in living up to all that we know is true, but we offer this prayer, praying that what we know to be true, may be seen in our common life.

I wouldn’t make it a regular Sunday thing to introduce the time of the Peace with a little bit of instruction, [as in the previous paragraph] but every now and then, if I’m the priest of this parish, I’d remind people that the sharing of the Peace is the logical, formal, and significant thing that we do as people reconciled to God in Christ. It’s what we do after hearing forgiveness—turning to our neighbor, and maybe to one who has offended us—to be reconciled with one another as we are our with God.

The time of the Peace, therefore, is not the time to share a recipe or talk about the most recent High School basketball game. It’s the time to turn to someone, preferably someone we may not know, or even better yet, someone with whom we’ve disagreed, and say “The Peace of the Lord be with you.” I’d add, that if these are the words we say, we ought to offer them with the intent that in the way we treat one another that we are actually united in God’s peace.

I’m suggesting that we encourage people to be a little more formal and focused in this critical part of our worship which involves confession, absolution and the sharing of the Peace. Given the history of many churches the emphasis needs to be on the goal of a community life that lives the Gospel story in a more forgiving way. What a gift it will be if the way we speak of God’s grace and mercy is evident in the way we treat one another and that in turn become what others see when they look in the windows.

Even in churches happy with their facilities and with the stewardship to support them, I believe in reminding people that we are the people of God not by the identity of a place, but by the way we worship together and minister to others. To experience reconciliation means to be at one with our God and at one with one another. It means laying down grudges and setting aside bad memories. It means starting over. It means the Kiss of Peace.

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