And the Plan is…There is No Plan


Genesis 12:1-4a

Psalm 121

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

John 3:1-17

Prayer of the Day: O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Genesis 12:1.

As an institution, the church in America is in free fall. Numerous trees have been felled and gallons of ink spilled by learned observers of religion on books and articles explaining this phenomenon. Discussion of these explanations is far beyond the scope of a single blog post. Suffice to say that, whatever the reasons, the decline of the mainline American church is a fact we simply cannot ignore. That has been clear to me for some time, but it became concretely so at the congregational meeting of my own congregation this last Sunday. Several people expressed concern over rising expenses, decreases in financial support and stagnant to declining membership. “We can’t go on this way!” one exasperated individual remarked. She is correct-but if not “this way,” then “what way?”

Adding to all of this is the fact that we are generationally top heavy. There is much work to be done simply to maintain the ministries we have going, to say nothing of the new ones we would like to initiate. Yet most of us are at a point in life where we feel as though we are entitled to slow down, let go of some responsibilities and allow the upcoming generation to take the reigns. Problem is, there is no upcoming generation. We have but a hand full of younger people with families. That seems to be the case with a lot of our churches these days. So, as much as we would like simply to sit out in front of our tents, look up at the stars and enjoy our golden years in peace, that is not an option. It seems God is not finished with us yet.

It strikes me that we are finding ourselves in much the same position as Abram and Sari. They, too, were old and seemingly faced with limited time, limited potential and limited energy. There seemed to be no room for anything new to happen in their lives. I can well imagine Abram replying to God’s call to leave home, family and community with the suggestion that God find someone else, somebody younger, somebody with some fire in their belly. But Abram did what most of us in our church are doing-leaving (often reluctantly) the old ways of doing things that have served us so well for so long without knowing where we are going or what we are supposed to do next.

Let me say at this point that I am not the least bit anxious or concerned about the demise of the church. I am convinced that there will be a church for as long as God needs a church. It won’t be the church we have grown to know and love. It probably will not be the church for which we hoped and which we expected. But whatever shape the church takes in the next generation, it will be the kind of church God needs. Thus, our concern should not be whether there will be a church in the next century, but whether we are being the kind of church God desires in this one.

Once we turn the discussion away from anxiety provoking questions of ecclesiastical survival and toward the issue of faithful discipleship, the issues become a lot more hopeful and interesting, if not easier. If expecting seminarians to incur substantial debt to complete their education only to receive calls from churches that cannot pay them adequately is not sustainable, how do we train ministers of word and sacrament without compromising the depth, commitment and oversight required for this essential work? If we cannot provide a full time pastor for each congregation, how do we raise up and train lay leaders to assume responsibility for aspects of pastoral ministry that can be delegated? Most importantly, how do we transition from a consumer model under which the church is a producer of religious goods for its membership to a model under which the church is a manufacturer of faithful disciples of Jesus? None of these questions admit of an easy answer. Struggling with them will not stem the demise of the institutional church in America. In fact, it might well accelerate the process! But this is perhaps a time in which it is of particular importance to hear Jesus’ assurance that those who lose their lives for his sake will surely gain them. Matthew 16:25.  

At times like these, we are particularly vulnerable to the siren song of hucksters who claim to know the way forward. During the near forty years of my active full time ministry, a week did not go by without an advertisement coming across my desk promoting a program promising to grow my church. There were variations of method and approach, but they all had one thing in common. None of them worked-at least not in terms of reversing congregational decline. I am reminded of Jesus’ warning about listening to those who cry out, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!” Matthew 24:23. It would be nice if we had a leader who could show us the path ahead, assure us that the end is near and bring an end to our uncertainty. Hence, the appeal of preachers who pretend to know God’s timetable for the end of time and populist political leaders who offer us simplistic solutions to difficult and complex problems. But God gave no such assurances to Abram. Neither does Jesus offer them to us. We don’t get an itinerary, we don’t get a schedule, we don’t get a road map. What we get is a call to leave the comfortable and familiar and venture out into an unknown future.

The good word for a dying church is that we follow a risen Lord. We cannot see the path ahead, but we know who walks with and before us. We have no idea where we are in time, how much further we need to travel or what will meet us on the road ahead. We have only the promise of a land, a people and a blessing at the end of it all. We get just enough light to put one foot in front of the other. It is not as much as we want. But it’s enough.

Here is a poem by Fenton Johnson articulating the kind of vision that can sustain us on our long journey through the dark wilderness-with a reminder that we are, in fact, still in the dark wilderness.

A Dream

I had a dream last night, a wonderful dream,

I saw an angel riding a chariot-

Oh, my honey, it was a lovely chariot,

Shining like the sun when noon is on the earth.

I saw his wings spreading from moon to earth;

I saw a crown of stars upon his forehead;

I saw his robes algleaming like his chariot.

I bowed my head and let the angel pass,

Because no man can look on Glory’s work;

I bowed my head and trembled in my limbs,

Because I stood on ground of holiness.

I heard the angel in the chariot singing:

“Hallelujah early in the morning!

I know my Redeemer livet-

How is it with your soul?”

I stood on ground of holiness and bowed;

The River Jordan flowed past my feet

As the angel soothed my soul with song,

A song of wonderful sweetness.

I stooped and washed my soul in Jordan’s stream

Ere my Redeemer came to take me home;

I stooped and washed my soul in the waters pure

As the breathing of a new-born child

Lying on a mammy’s breast at night.

I looked and saw the angel descending

And a crown of stars was in his hand:

“Be ye not amazed, good friend,” he said,

“I bring a diadem of righteousness,

A covenant from the Lord of life,

That in the morning you will see

Eternal streets of gold and pearl aglow

And be with me in Paradise.”

The vision faded. I awoke and heard

A mocking-bird upon my window-sill.

Source: Poetry, December 1921. Fenton Johnson (1888 -1958) was an American poet, essayist, author of short stories, editor, and educator. He came from a middle-class African-American family in Chicago where he spent most of his career. His father, Elijah Johnson, was a railroad porter and owner of the State Street building in which the family lived. Johnson received his secondary education at various public schools in the city, including Englewood High School and Wendell Phillips High School. Johnson earned his bachelors degree from the University of Chicago and later attended the Columbia University Pulitzer School of Journalism. After completing school, Johnson worked for a short time as a messenger and postal employee. Shortly thereafter, he secured a teaching position at the State University of Louisville, a private, black, Baptist-owned institution in Kentucky later re-named Simmons College. There he taught English until he returned to Chicago in 1911 to concentrate on his writing career. Johnson published his first volume of poetry, A Little Dreaming, in 1913. Thereafter, he published two others books, Visions of the Dusk and Songs of the Soil in 1915 and 1916 respectively. His work is included in many anthologies of 20th-century poetry. Johnson is considered by many to be a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance. You can read more about Fenton Johnson and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

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