Healthy Congregations

It’s a typical Sunday morning for me and Patsy. We drive past fallow fall fields, trustworthy GPS coaxing us down the rural roadway. Just over an hour outside of Birmingham we descend a low hill, the trees part, and we see a little white frame church, a building that is type cast as everyone’s idea of a church. An hour before the service only a few pickup trucks have gathered in the church’s gravel lot. Spotting an aging Ford Taurus parked in the shade, I comment knowledgeably, “At least the pastor is here.”

“Though this county has lost a third of its population, it now has the third highest influx of Spanish speaking people. That building was built after the fire – in the Forties – they still call it ‘the new church,’” I say, showing off my reading. It is my custom to ask for a summary of the demographic context and the congregational history when I make a Sunday visit. While my sermon preparation is helped by knowledge of the congregation’s past, the truth is that most of our congregations have more history behind them than future before them.

The majority of our congregations, like the one where I’m the visiting preacher today, are located where they were planted a century ago. In every case, the community that gave them birth has relocated. Though the people around the congregation have changed, the congregation has remained fixed on the same land where it was established and, in many cases, fixed in the same rhythms of congregational life that worked for them decades ago, but no longer work today.

That’s one of the things people love about a church – it doesn’t move. It blooms where planted and, long after it has ceased to be fruitful, stays planted. We build our churches to look at least two hundred years older than they actually are. Inside, we bolt down the pews and make the furniture heavy and substantial. That the world around the church is chaotic and instable is a further justification for the church to be fixed and final.

One of my younger churches worships in the “contemporary worship” idiom. The pastor complained to me of boredom: “We are singing the same songs, using the same pattern of worship that we’ve been stuck with for the past twenty years. Worst of all, we call it ‘contemporary’!”

“Why not change?” I asked naively.

“This is a highly mobile suburban neighborhood,” he explained. “Only a couple of my members have been here longer than I. The last thing my people want is for church to force even more change. Contemporary has become our hallowed, immutable tradition.”

In a time when many feel overwhelmed by change – the government’s economic attack on the middle class, high unemployment among our young adults, shifting political alliances, soaring debt to pay for the biggest military in the world, the demise of once sound institutions, changing social mores, the information explosion – the church is tapped to play the role of island of stability amid a sea of change.

What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution “the Body of Christ.” All the gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless peripatetic. Never once did he say, “Settle down with me.” No, with vagabond Jesus it was always, “Follow me!”

Consider the first days of Christ’s resurrected life. Not content just to be raised from the dead, the risen Christ is in motion, returning to the rag-tag group of Galilean losers who had failed him. (Matthew 28:16-20)

And what does Jesus say? “You have had a rough time. Settle down in Galilee among these good country folk with whom you are most comfortable. Buy real estate, build a church, get a good mortgage, and enjoy being a spiritual club”? No. The risen Christ commands, “Get out of here! Make me disciples, baptizing and teaching everything I’ve commanded! And don’t limit yourselves to Judea. Go to everybody. I’ll stick with you until the end of time — just to be sure you obey me.”

How like the rover Jesus to disallow his people rest. Refusing to permit them to hunker down with their own kind, he sent those who had so disappointed him forth on the most perilous of missions. They were, in Jesus’ name, to take back the world that belonged to God. There is no way to be with Jesus, to love Jesus, without obeying Jesus, venturing with Jesus. “Go! Make disciples!”

The theme of this year’s Annual Conference is “Healthy Congregations.” We are going to reflect on our Conference priority of building healthy churches. One way to tell if a person is in good health is if that person is out and about, if that person is able to be a person in motion.

One way to tell if a congregation is healthy is that it is on the move, trying to keep up with the machinations of the risen Christ. Thanks be to God the majority of our churches, thought they may have been planted where they are a century ago, show a wonderful willingness to be in motion with the risen Christ.

William Willimon

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