The community of God

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — It occurred to me this week that sometimes Jesus speaks like an intentional interim pastor. Did you catch this part in today’s text where Jesus is talking with his followers at what will become their final meal together? “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus had a strong sense of the challenges that lay ahead for those who would follow in his Way of self-emptying love, radical inclusivity, passion for justice. He understood human overwhelm, especially when it is filled with longing, grief and anxiety about the future. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” So often in my interim ministry with congregations, there are things I want to say that people cannot bear. In the churches I serve, I often encounter expressions among some members of longing for the former days, the good old days, in their church life together. Underneath the familiar tales of once-full Sunday school classes, multiple young families, numerous women’s circles, nursery staffed by parent volunteers, members who were really committed to church and filling the pews every Sunday, I hear a deep yearning for what was. I hear grief about what has been lost. The institutional future of church as we have known it is unclear. I have found that no amount of money in an endowment fund can guarantee a church’s vibrant future. People are understandably anxious about this. So often, like Jesus, the thing I want to say, the thing that some people cannot bear, is this: the church you loved is gone. And I often wonder, are congregations ready for, open to the new thing that God wants to build in their midst?

Among my seminary classmates, we have a saying: “The church we were taught to serve no longer exists.” We began our ministries in the late 1970s on the tail end of the great post-World War II Protestant church building explosion. We were trained to craft intellectual lecture-like sermons, to lead huge youth groups and multiple adult education forums, to direct large Sunday School and outreach programs. Church as the center of the community! I think back to that time, which now looks like the technological dark ages: hammering out sermons on a typewriter, using paper maps to get to parishioners’ homes and hospitals, the clacking stencil machine used to produce the worship bulletin. But this was the norm, and church-going was the norm and everyone assumed we lived in a “Christian nation” with shared experiences and expectations about God, civic duty and community participation.

Inexperienced and optimistic, most of my classmates and I were called to churches that were, in reality, slowly beginning to experience drops in attendance and dollars. And through the decades, my clergy colleagues and I have heard an ongoing lament: “The church used to be the center of our lives, there were no kids’ sports on Sunday, and church activities were the focus of our community…like a community center! And people were committed!”

The Gospel of John tells us that on the night of his arrest, Jesus looked around the supper table at the men and women who had been his closest companions, who had listened to him teach, had prayed and eaten countless meals with him, watched him heal and debate with the religious elders. Jesus must have felt really torn, as he sensed his time with them was short. There were many things they just couldn’t bear, couldn’t handle at this point. And so he continued: “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and it will declare to you the things that are to come.” Once again, Jesus is grappling with simple words that describe a great mystery: this aspect of the divine that has been present at the beginning of creation, God’s spirit, God’s breath, that moved over the watery chaos, this Spirit, this Comforter and Advocate as Jesus would have it, is in me and here for all of you. Guiding us, like a conduit for God’s word of truth. How to imagine this? Like billions of thin filaments of fiber-optic cable, running from God to each of us and between us, weaving a web of sparking connection among all things? Like a vast cloud, an ether, filled with particles of insight, flowing between God to humans? Not really a conduit for discrete facts, but a relational network, humming, vibrating, connecting. A relational community of God, within God the Creator, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit. What do you see in your mind’s eye? What is the truth about the church that the Spirit can teach us in this time? What will help us bear the bad news about the end of church as we have known it, and welcome the good news of what’s to come?

I recently came upon the writings of a Lutheran pastor in western Canada named Erik Parker. He blogs at a site he calls “The Millennial Pastor: An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church.” What a great image: we’re in the land of the internet and smartphones, but sometimes the church still seems back in the typewriter age! In a recent post called “Why Nothing Seems to Get People Back to Church – the Issue at the Core of Decline,” Pastor Parker unpacks the current debate about young people’s supposed lack of commitment.

We are stuck, Parker contends, with focusing on seeing the church as community, to which we make a social commitment. “Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment,” writes Parker. “The core of churches have been based on the fact that people (were) expected to attend because of societal pressures….These churches did good ministry, … and they were servant communities. But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders (and there are so many new social commitments vying for people’s time and energy), attracting people to a social commitment at church doesn’t work. In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.”

He reminds us how today, both parents work in most families and household duties need attention on weekends. But also, “People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love” for their precious weekend hours. Shared love of sports, brunch, sleeping in, music, time with family, being in the great outdoors. “But what is our shared loved at church?” Parker asks. “Are we just communities to join without a shared passion? If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church. As a millennial,” Parker continues, “I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.” The shared passion church goers are looking for, claims Parker? “My church-going peers are interested in following Jesus.”

“Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team. Now imagine members of that ‘soccer team’ wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.”

This is the news we cannot bear. People are interested in following Jesus, and exploring this beyond simple socializing. And we can’t bear this because, as liberal-minded Christians who have focused on the social aspect of church-going for so many years, we often get nervous around the Jesus talk. His radical call to transformation, to changed lives, is perhaps more than we bargained for. I need to change? You need to change? Maybe we worry this will make us look like judgmental fundamentalists and that we are consigning all non-followers of Jesus to hell. We hesitate to talk with one another about the Jesus who says things like: “The Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Does it make us squirm, this notion of God and Jesus so interconnected that all that God has belongs also to Jesus? “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” continues Jesus. Statements like this make Jesus looks so divine-ish, and maybe we would just rather be Christian-ish: moral, good people who share a sense of civic duty in coming to church.

The Gospel writer John’s community was experiencing something different, something life-changing, something also offered to us in these uncertain times: Jesus’ ongoing, empowering presence and challenging teaching, coming through the presence of the Spirit, even now. Thanks be to God. Amen.