Scripture: Matthew 25:14–30
It was annual review day at the denominational office. All of the staff gathered around the conference table, which was covered with file folders, filled with spreadsheets of data from the churches throughout the judicatory. Average weekly attendance. Participants in youth camps. Annual budget and apportionment to the denomination. All of the information that the staff needed to determine which churches were healthy, and which were not.
The coffee cups were filled. The pastries were set out. And the review began.
Third Church was the first one on the list. It was a 60-year-old church, planted in a neighborhood which at that time was the growing edge of the suburbs. But that growth edge had shifted to the other side of town, and the older neighborhood was now transitioning. Most of the church members had moved farther and farther away, driving back to the old neighborhood for church. Though “most” was generous…the congregation had become much smaller in the last decade and the once-sizable staff had shrunk to one ¾ time pastor.
But that pastor had “gumption,” reported one of the older denominational staff members. What he meant was that she was a tad annoying, especially to the sensibilities of some of the founding members. She was convinced that the church needed to get to know its neighbors, so she began several initiatives to do so. The church held what they called “A Lot of Love” Sunday, where they walked around their parking lot and prayed for how they might use their space for the Gospel. Some of the members felt called to start a community garden, and a few neighbors had joined in and planted veggies in raised beds. They realized that a couple suffering from homelessness had snuck a tent in under the pine trees and had been living there for some time. The pastor went to City Hall and challenged the zoning law that kept them from being able to legally host them. Within a few months, they had made it possible for several others to join them, and had even gotten the city to change the bus route so that it stopped right by their lot.
The end result of all of this activity? Zero new members. In fact, they had lost a few. The denominational staff had received half a dozen angry phone calls from founding members, complaining that their church had become an embarrassment and someone needed to do something about it. Several members had left and others were threatening to. The report summary was splashed with red marks, denoting some real dangers to survival of the congregation.
Next up on the report list was Second Church. A couple of staff members rolled their eyes when they came up. It was just about as small as Third Church, and had just about as much red ink on their report. It was on the edge of campus, and was one of the few churches that attracted a few college students, as well as a handful of faculty members. “The only number in this church going up is the average IQ,” grumbled one denominational staff member. “And our blood pressure, having to deal with them,” chimed in another.
The pastor was a young gay man, who believed that the church was a place for speaking out against injustice. And that he did. Along with the rest of the church. They routinely climbed aboard the rickety church bus and drove to the state capitol, where they stood with signs to protest. LGBTQ rights. Rights for women and racial minorities. Animal rights. Rights for the unborn. It seems like they never ran across a cause they didn’t embrace. Outside of their church hung Black Lives Matter flags, and rainbow flags, and other posters and flags and symbols of various causes.
But waving the denominational flag on the grounds of the statehouse had caused no small amount of consternation at the State Capitol, especially among representatives who belonged to other denominational churches. Again, the phone had been hot with calls to the denominational staff, suggesting that something needed to be done. But as soon as they called the pastor and suggested a quieter approach, they saw that church bus on the evening news once again.
You could hear the audible sigh of relief when the evaluation team brought up First Church. Finally, some black on the summary sheet. This was the denominational flagship in town, and everyone knew that their apportionments saved the annual budget more than once.
First Church had timed their moves to the suburbs perfectly, shedding the old, downtown building and erecting a beautiful facility right next to the crown jewel high school when it was being built. The congregation was filled with tons of happy families, excited to see a congregation that cared about their needs, and one that paid attention to the things that they wanted to talk about. They chartered buses every year to take kids to camp. They were one of the only churches in town adding staff. And they sat on a plump endowment that meant they were ready for long-term growth.
When the staff gave the report, they gave credit to the fine work of the senior pastor. He managed the staff and the congregation beautifully. He was a pro at keeping things at a consensus level, or at least knowing when an issue would not be solvable, and quietly sweeping it under the rug. If the staff ever got a call from church members, it was usually to the tune of “please, please, please don’t reassign our pastor. He is the best thing that has ever happened to our church, and we wouldn’t make it without him!” You could tell that the anxiety in the room lowered when they talked about First Church, and the glowing report made it clear they were thankful for the work that they did for the Kingdom and the denomination.
It went this way throughout the morning, and when box lunches were brought in, they knew that the time had come for some hard conversations. Halfway through the meal, the chair of the evaluation committee set down her ham and swiss, and said aloud the words that needed to be said: “No one wants to say it out loud, but our conclusion is that Third Church and Second should be contracted into one congregation. The numbers aren’t there, and it isn’t worth it to waste staff on such dwindling churches.” In the corner, one of the younger staff members made some snide comment under his breath about calling it “Two and a Half Church” but he got a few stern looks by the older staff members. “Meanwhile, we believe that the entire staff at First Church should be given raises, for their exemplary service.” They all paused in silence, as they awaited the response of the denominational exec.
She finished chewing, and sat a moment longer. Finally, she spoke slowly and clearly: “It is clear what we should do. I want our communication staff to create a full edition devoted to the ministry successes of Third Church and Second Church. If they have room in their worship service, I would love to worship with them—one on Palm Sunday and the other on Easter—so that I can celebrate in person the amazing Gospel work that they are doing. Meanwhile, I want you to call the staff of First Church and set up several weeks of denominational consulting work. We need to set up a series of meetings with their staff and leadership, before it is too late. Ladies and gentleman, First Church is dying, and we need to do something about it right away.”
The stillness in the room was deafening. The looks of shock were passed from across the table and across the room. The only noise was the “Two and Half Church” kid in the corner snickering, because he thought it was a joke. But it dawned on all of them that the denominational exec was absolutely serious. But by the looks on their faces, she realized that she needed to explain a little more.
“I want you to look past the numbers and the budgets here. What separates First Church from the other two? Fear. They are living terrified that they might do something wrong. They are afraid of us. They are afraid of their congregation. Heck, at some level they are afraid that God is going to punish them if they take the wrong step. They might look good in the moment, but if they continue to minister out of fear, their church will die. It’s based on the consumerism of our culture, but one day, they are going to run out of consumers, when they run to the next, and newest church. And mark my words: there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
“But what is the hallmark of the other two churches? Trust. They trust that God will be with them, regardless of what they do, and it allows them to be vulnerable and risk some creative and innovative ministry. They aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. They aren’t afraid of ruffling a few feathers at City Hall. They aren’t afraid of their neighbors. They sure aren’t afraid of us! Listen, Jesus didn’t show up and live the life he lived so that we could just do the same-old, same-old. He came to announce an upside-down Reign of God that is marked by complete trust and risk for the Gospel. Our denomination has been declining steadily for about fifty years now, and if there is going to be anything left of it in the next fifty, it’s because we look to those churches, and those voices, on the leading edge. These two churches may or may not survive the next decade, let alone the next fifty years. But they aren’t going out without a fight. And I think it’s high time we join them! It’s time to find out what happens when we really trust in God’s work in the world.”