“So we do not lose heart.”
It is easy to lose heart, of course. The world and our experience of living within it, gives us all sorts of causes and reasons for discouragement. We experience it in our lives, in our communities, large and small, and in our congregations — this temptation to “lose heart.” For when that which we see; that which we have come to rely on; that which has guided and governed our living; yes, that which the world says matters most, begins to erode? It is easy to despair. Yes, it is so that Paul uses the analogy of the human body here and yes it is also so that perhaps we experience this ‘eroding’ most intimately when this reality comes home to us in this way. Even so. Whenever and wherever there is decay,corruption, or ‘wasting away,’ it is easy to “lose heart.” And while Paul speaks of the reason for our hope in an ultimate sense, there are certainly ways in which we experience steps along the way where that ‘eternal weight of glory’ makes itself known even now. Only that can be awfully hard to see when the wasting away so often takes center stage.
Indeed, I am attempting to live within these powerful words of Paul even as I find myself considering the state of congregations in the United States in these last days. You would have to be living under a rock if you are engaged in public ministry and somehow missed the recent Pew Report which points to the decline of Christianity in this country and the growth in the number of those who are now unaffiliated — those we have come to call ‘nones.’ For that matter, it didn’t take a headline which announced these recent findings, for most of us already know too well that this is our reality now.
In fact, it is so that I bemoaned my own experience at a recent gathering of pastors that “this is not the church I was ordained into.” And it’s not. At the same time, I am coming to recognize that the place we find ourselves now has been coming for some time — long before I was ever called ‘pastor.’ For instance, check out Phyllis Tickle’s analysis in her The Great Emergence for a concise summary of the state of our culture and its impact on our faith communities. Oh yes, it is so that we are experiencing a great ‘wasting away’ of what we somehow thought would always be and I, for one, have been right in the middle of complaining and worrying about this reality.
You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?
- That conversation that begins with talking about scheduling an event for youth and realizes that we are in competition with traveling teams, school concerts, summer school — you name it.
- Or that awareness that yet another Saturday will be taken up by a funeral because family lives so far away that this is the only time everyone can get here (or that local people can possibly attend, either, given the fact that hardly anyone is given time off to attend funerals any more.)
- Or the oft-repeated conversation where leaders are looking at the numbers and seeing a steady decline in attendance and giving because people have other places to be on Sunday mornings.
- Or the moment when we recognize that even our active members may find their way to worship only once or twice a month, given other obligations and opportunities.
Oh yes, just like with our aging human bodies, the ‘outer nature’ of our beloved church is wasting away. And whether I like it or not, it is not now and most likely will never again be what it once was. At least not in this lifetime.
Now I tell you the truth when I say this. I grieve this, I do.
- I am blessed to serve an active and thriving congregation, but I am deeply aware that our most generous givers are of a generation which will be gone — or at least unable to be as generous as they are now — in twenty years if not sooner
- I preach every Sunday in a beautiful space which will mark its 100th year since construction next summer. It costs real dollars to keep it in pristine condition — something we certainly want to do, all the while realizing that those dollars will be harder and harder to come by and surely, one day, most likely will be diverted from other ministries and missions in order to keep up.
- Even now, the space is larger than we need — or at least it doesn’t lend itself well to smaller worship gatherings, thus limiting the number and types of worship options we feel we can make.
So yes, I grieve this. None of it is as simple as it was twenty-seven years ago when they first draped a red stole around my shoulders. And I ache to see it go.
And yet, we have before us now this promise which certainly must be so for more than just our human bodies.
- Indeed, mustn’t it also speak to the Body of Christ, the Church?
- Don’t you suppose that God would also have us know and experience this certainty that even as we suffer and struggle in this, God is also doing a new thing? Even within us?
- Don’t you think Paul would tell us all now that we should not ‘lose heart?’
Only the cause for our ‘not losing heart’ cannot be in what was. No, just like I know that at 54 my human body is creaking in ways I could not have imagined at 24 and for all of my working at it that will not ever entirely change — in the same way, we are not likely to get back what we sometimes think of as ‘the glory days’ of the church. And yet, could it be that God has something even greater in store? Something even more marvelous than filled pews and overflowing Sunday School Rooms and budgets in the black? And might it be possible that we may even get a sense of what that will be in our lifetimes?
I can’t say for sure, of course. But we do have this promise before us now urging us to hold on and to not “lose heart.” So maybe the call for me — for all of us — is to stop our moaning and our worrying and to get out of our heads and our much loved histories and to look out there and to listen to where and how God may already be preparing for us ‘an eternal weight of glory!’ Indeed, maybe as I walk away from my discouragement and get out of my office and into the world and into the lives of those people God so loves down the street and around the block and across town — maybe then I will start to sense my own, our own, ‘inner nature’ being renewed.
Maybe. At least that’s what I sense we’re told to do as we are urged to not ‘lose heart.’ At least that’s the only way forward I can see out of the discouragement which creeps up on us as we seek to be and do all that we are called to be and do as the Church. For as I said before, I really don’t see the world going back to what it was — not even to when I was young. And at the same time, I really don’t see Jesus giving up on me, on us, or on this world either.
Maybe. For no, I don’t have the answers just as I am fairly confident none of us does. But then, neither did Paul when he wrote these words to the church at Corinth so long ago. He could not possibly have imagined then the way the Gospel would take root in places he did not then know even existed. Given this alone, surely it is time for my moaning and worrying to stop. Indeed, isn’t it time that I at least start to try to get on board with where and how God is already ‘renewing’ you and me and the Church and the world we are called to serve? Oh yes, I suspect all I have to do is get out there and I will begin to see how God is keeping this promise even now.
- What in your life, your community, your congregation is most likely to cause you to ‘lose heart?’
- Where and how do you sense God renewing your ‘inner nature’ day by day?
- Do Paul’s words here speak to the Church today? Why or why not?
- I have no idea what the future holds for the Church as we consider the myriad changes around us, but I am eager to be in conversation with others about it. Would you be willing to engage with me in this vitally important conversation? If so, message me on Facebook, through this website, or at my email at email@example.com . Let’s find a way to listen together for God and to one another as we sort out where and how God is already ‘renewing’ for the sake of the world. Please. I would love to hear from you.