I am in a strange place. The church I serve is closing. My denomination is still paying me, but my job description is…nebulous. People keep praising me for doing a good job, but I just feel like I let a lot of people down. It’s strange.
And I always knew I’d be here.
Maybe not always, but at least since I knew for sure I was going to be a pastor. During the same semester of seminary where I realized I really was built for this job, I realized that the system I was entering had been built for 19th Century. And even all the patches we slapped on to face the 20th Century were starting to peel off. I’m a United Methodist, so I have more information about our system than anyone else’s, but none of them are firing on all cylinders anymore.
Our bureaucracies were designed to make top-down decisions in a world that’s increasingly flat. The theological and sociological debates that have divided us for half a century don’t make any sense to most of the American population. Our competitive, service-peddling arms race filled giant buildings full of people who wanted social gatherings for themselves, bible songs for their kids and anything to distract their teenagers from sex. But a little over a generation ago, this stopped attracting new people to Jesus and we’ve been simply swapping the same sheep from one flock to another ever since. Young people on the outside don’t see our commitment to God, our earnest search for purpose or truth, or our genuine love for one another. They just see the competition. And they spend their Sundays somewhere else.
The culture has shifted, and the church has largely been left behind.
Now, this is not a doomsday post. I don’t think the Church in America is going to crumble or even that my denomination is going to die (not from outside forces anyway). I believe there is hope, because I believe in a God who has overcome even death. I believe there is a way forward and I trust the guiding Spirit of God enough to believe we can find it. The church has faced crises before and people like St. Gregory, Martin Luther, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr. have found both the vision to see a new way and the courage to follow it.
Something new is being born. I know it, because we worship a God who makes all things new.
In 2006, I sat on an old worn out couch in our house in McKinney, TX surrounded by books written by visionaries like Phyllis Tickle and crowded to the far end by my yellow lab, Gibson. I didn’t want to leave my denomination. Not only had they raised me, but we’ve consistently answered questions like “can women be pastors?” and “how do we do ministry with divorced persons?” in ways that push us toward justice and the best versions of humanity. But I also knew something new needed to be born. So I prayed, “God, put me out on the edge.” I wasn’t asking to be another Dr. King. I just wanted to be a part of moving in the right direction. I wanted in some small way to help bring something new to life.
So here I am, in a strange place, for all the right reasons. I got to serve a congregation out on the edge – full of people in their 20’s and 30’s who surprised everyone by choosing faith, hope and love. I got to help people who had given up on this whole “church” thing in the past find reasons to keep following Jesus, even if that meant bureaucracy, battles and competition would follow us too. I got to tell the truth, and watch people get better at love.
Our way of being the church didn’t fit in the old system. We couldn’t afford to be an independent United Methodist congregation anymore. But we all saw glimpses of something new. We all saw that even if the systems don’t fit in the 21st Century, the message of hope in Jesus Christ and the mission of the Kingdom of God are life-changing. Genuine love and timeless truth draw people to their Creator, and people drawn to their Creator make the world a better place to live.
I’m deeply sad about my church and I’m deeply sad for the people of CrossTimbers UMC. But I am not beaten. And neither are they. They get to carry this faith out into other churches. We have hope for the future, because we know the One who is already there, calling us forward. And I’m still praying the same thing: “God, put me out on the edge.” I don’t know what it’s going to look like and I know that the next time I fall off the edge, I may not land so softly. But something new is being born and I hope you want to be a part of it as much as I do.