A Church of Human Beings

Frederick Buechner has been my companion and mentor over the years without even knowing it. I have learned much from him and have enjoyed thoroughly reading his graceful, uniquely descriptive and imaginative writing. I suspect that I have read almost everything he wrote and published and continue, now and then, to pull one of his books from the shelf and read: The Sacred Journey, Secrets in the Dark, The Magnificent Defeat. One of my favorites is The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction. Buechner is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) as am I, and though he does not participate in denominational affairs and, as far as I know, doesn’t pay much attention to them, when he writes about Church, I listen. In a chapter in Secrets in the Dark entitled “Church” he writes, “Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and guts, intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in any one of us. The reason he made his church out of human beings is that human beings were all there was to make it out of. In fact, as far as I know, human beings are all there is to make it out of still. It’s a point worth remembering.”  I was grateful for the reminder many times in my own experience of the church.

Near the end of the piece Buechner wrote a luminous two sentences that keep popping into my mind every time I read or hear that the Mainline Church is in serious decline, that the “Nones” are the only religious category growing, that the denominations are running out of money, that another big, old congregation is leaving the denominational family over this or that issue. “Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place.”

Sometimes it feels like that is exactly what is happening to the Mainline church in North America. Angie Mabry Naute, in her article in a recent issue of The Christian Century, “Last Sunday: When It’s Time to Close the Church,”  begins with the startling announcement that 9 U.S. churches close their doors for good almost every day. Citing examples of  congregations from Tucson, Plano, and Chicago, she chronicles the options for declining congregations that are not able to meet the three criteria of viability: critical mass, adequate finances, and vision. All three of these congregations made the difficult decision to close the church. It is incredibly painful. The remnant of a once thriving congregation deeply and profoundly loves their church, have important life-long memories and often believe that if they simply hang on and keep doing what they always did the good old days will return. They almost never do. Once the ecclesiastical death-spiral begins it almost always ends with a church’s closing.

There is a monumental amount of hand wringing and blame that goes with this. “It’s the liberal progressives fault. No, it’s the conservative evangelicals. No, it’s actually the traditionalists who insist on singing old hymns. No, it’s the feeble attempt to superimpose a praise band on an aging congregation.”  I’m convinced that it’s no one’s fault and the energy spent arguing and blaming and attacking one another would be better spent putting our best minds to work to deal honestly with the realities we face. The simple fact is that we are holding on to a model that doesn’t work for everybody in every place any longer. Now, decades after the model did work, there are small, declining, aging congregations trying desperately to raise enough money to fix the roof of their crumbling, century-old building and pay a full time clergy person. There are, of course, large urban and suburban churches that are thriving and even growing. But there are many more neighborhood and rural congregations that will require courageous new thinking if they are to survive, and a healthy dose of honest realism. It will require creative thinking on the part of denominational executives, pastors brave enough to walk into challenging situations, and most of all, people willing to let go of a model of church that worked beautifully for them in the past but no longer does. The alternative is not very cheerful. In the meantime, I’m glad for Buechner’s reminder that we do have Christ and one another and that is actually quite a lot.

Comments

  1. Marvelously put. As a longtime Fourth Church member, I have long loved quotations you’ve found from Frederick Buechner’s work. Thank you. The closing congregations must be in such pain, but this post helps me remember that they’re still part of the larger church. They have Jesus and us, too.

  2. I too enjoy Burchner’s writings and your quotes and thoughts here resonate deeply. It is not failure to close a church. It *is* failure when we forget what exactly Jesus died for on the cross. It *is* failure when we, so busy, evangelizing the heathens and ‘making disciples of disciples’ cannot reach out in friendship – a word which incidentally also is a reference to sacrificed made with exuberant joy’ (John 15:15) with the ‘nones’ among us. Yes, we have a lot when we’re truly in Christ. Thank you.

  3. I too enjoy Burchner’s writings and your quotes and thoughts here resonate deeply. It is not failure to close a church. It *is* failure when we forget what exactly Jesus died for on the cross. It *is* failure when we, so busy, evangelizing the heathens and ‘making disciples of disciples’ cannot reach out in friendship – a word which incidentally is also a reference to a ‘sacrifice’ made with ‘exuberant joy’ (John 15:15) with the ‘nones’ among us. Yes, we have a lot when we’re truly in Christ. Thank you.

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