For much of the 20th century, churches in America were able to fund the work of Jesus on the backs of a few people with money and 3 or 4 fund-raisers a year. The cost to run a church building was fairly low, and the clergy was among the poorest paid professionals in the world, so even smallish churches were able to afford “their own” pastor. The problem is that this led to a lot of isolation and competition among these congregations. In the city of Reading, PA, there were 20 congregations at one time, all founded before there were cars. This strategy – to blanket an area so everyone could walk or ride a horse to church – worked really well for that time. There was no competition on a Sunday morning, and everyone went to church because it was the right (and only) thing to do. This strategy began to fail when something revolutionary happened – the car was born.
When I came to Calvary in 1999, we were down to 13 churches; now, there are 3. And it isn’t that the congregations that closed did so because they weren’t faithful; they were very much committed to the work of Jesus. The reasons are many, but the fact remains; we aren’t what we used to be. It may be because so many of our churches are stuck in 1850 or 1950, or it may be that the building has become so expensive to keep up that it broke the bank. For a lot of our congregations, population shifts, demographic changes, and the worldwide demise of the Mainline Church have all contributed to this shift. We like to point fingers and find blame, but that helps nobody. My question is this: what now?
When I came to Calvary there were 20 committees, and the chair of each committee served on our board, called the Consistory. This was a problem for a couple of reasons; it is nearly impossible for that large a group to make a decision in a timely manner (so it falls on the pastor), and it limits the ministry of the church. Over the years, I have offered tweaks along the way, moving away from a top-heavy decision-making way of being organized to a spiritual leadership model. I have asked people to discern what mission is burning in their souls and have encouraged them to follow that with the church’s support. This has usually gone well, but sometimes not; becoming part of Samaritan’s Purse (led by Franklin Graham) was one that did not go well. Still, our, or at least my, take on true religion was to allow the ministry to happen organically, from the hearts and minds of the membership. It is somewhat chaotic, but well worth it.
Before the pandemic, I had been working through a way to simplify how we are the church. I looked at Acts 2 as my guide and began to place our ministries in six different categories. We had to put that aside for 2 years, but we will begin looking at this model again this year. This is our “what now?” moment; this is how we will reclaim our work as the church on our little corner in Reading, Pennsylvania. Will it work? I have no idea. It will, I think, make us think more about what we do as a community of faith. It will make us ask the question I often ask: What would Jesus think of this thing we are doing? For too long, our churches have looked more like private clubs than public servants. That needs to change.
Prayer – Help us, God of service and servanthood, to reclaim our center of faith. Let us show others whose we are by how we love. Amen.
Today’s art is a mural called “Helping Hands” from the Waitsfield Elementary School Art Program in Waitsfield, Vermont.