My time with this congregation has pretty much ruined church for me. Despite how that may sound, I’m not upset. Sad on occasion, and perhaps a bit frustrated at times, but not upset. Overall I’m quite content to be finding my way through these ruins. Let me explain:

Pastoring with Richmond Church of the Brethren over the last seven years has shown me just how deep, authentic, intentional, and creative church can be. Meanwhile I’ve also come to realize that these things are not always so readily expressed within other gatherings of the body of Christ.

The intimacy, thoughtfulness, and openness to change that we share is certainly not unique, but is definitely rare.

When I hear other people talk about how stilted and artificial church is; how you can’t openly admit struggles, doubts, or disbeliefs; or how maintaining certain traditions and institutional structures seems more important than loving, welcoming, and caring for people – I know, deep in my heart, there’s another way. Because I’ve seen and experienced it here.

When I hear stories of churches where arguments break out over what color the carpet should be, or which Sunday School curriculum to use, I think of what we have done together over these past years. We’ve started new, creative ministries, and have also had the maturity to end projects and programs that no longer fit us. We’ve experimented with holding our Sunday worship gathering at different times of the day to better suit changing lifestyles. We sold our building to focus on what is most important for us as a church: relationships, not physical belongings. And we’ve done all these things with a tremendous amount of grace and compassion for one another.

That’s not to say we haven’t had some disagreements along the way. We have. And there have been folks who chose to leave because our evolving expression of church hasn’t fit their spiritual needs. We’re half the size we were when I began, which is certainly impactful. We’re by no means perfect, but we’re a powerful example of how churches can adapt to changing social and cultural realities.

These recent years of moving from full-time to half-time pastoral ministry have helped me see that the traditional, institutional churches we’ve known for past few centuries can not, will not survive without massive change. In part because of people like me, who by their experiences or their guts know church should be about more than arguing over who is welcome, what style of music to use, how to meet the budget, and so on. I’ve witnessed another way, and I’m simply unwilling and unable to feel at home in a community seeking anything other than real and life-changing authenticity, welcome, creativity, vulnerability, justice, and love. Even when that has meant taking a substantial pay cut.

As I look around the early 21st century US, I see a lot of church ruins. Perhaps the buildings aren’t yet crumbling or converted to novel, secular uses. Perhaps people are still gathering to put on happy faces, sing old-favorite songs, and wait for rapture. Perhaps a whole generation of churches will soon be forced to acknowledge their unwillingness to change means entrance into hospice care, staying as comfortable as possible until their eventual death. Regardless, the ruins are already there. I see them, but have little interest in entering, little interest in trying to change attitudes and systems that are chronically unwilling. I can appreciate them for what they were without being confined to them because I know there’s an alternative.

Life among, but but at arms length from, these ruins isn’t all that bad. Not once you begin to notice the ways God is moving, stirring, sprouting up in new places. Like seeds sown far and wide by that trickster-Messiah we call Jesus, new life emerges. Like the small, green vestiges that remain after the Spirit’s blazing fire, ready to start the complex process of growing into a new forest. Hope springs eternal.

Temples will fall. Systems will change and evolve. But the everlasting grace, love, and power of God will continue to break forth into the world and into our lives. Sometimes through our experiences with the church, and sometimes in spite of them.

Yes, the old ways of church have been ruined for me, and I for them. But that does not leave me without a longing to be part of a faith community. It simply helps to clarify my calling toward churches like this one: our small and struggling, full-of-possibility community of holy belonging, radically following a wild-eyed, homeless man of God who’s been gathering misfits together and turning the world upside down for two thousand years.

My ardent hope and prayer is that wherever life’s journey takes me that I will find others wandering amidst these ruins, friends and neighbors who are looking for something different, something real, something like us. If you find them before I do, let them know they need not wander alone.

Grace and peace,
Matt

Featured Image: Whitby’s Abbey, by Cristina L. F., Creative Commons Attribution