I feel like I had an epiphany moment a few months ago on a walk. Seems like some of my best thinking happens when I’m walking down a dirt road. For the umpteenth time, I was trying to get a handle on what exactly had happened at Bergthal Mennonite, the church where I pastor. In February, we decided to shut our doors in August 0f 2013 due simply to an ever declining membership. One of the things I’ve really wrestled with is why my congregation doesn’t seem able to capitalize on its many gifts and envision for itself a new beginning. Yes, our numbers are small. No getting around that one. However, we are also very young. We are spectacularly well educated. In comparison to other small congregations, we have a lot of money in the bank.
But the real kicker for me is that in many ways, this little fellowship is a church ahead of its time. We’re on the leading edge of the curve as we look into the future of the church. Taking into account all the reading I’ve been doing and conversations I’ve had, when I look into my crystal ball and try to catch a glimpse of the Christian Church on down the line, here’s what I see. Many, many house churches - flexible fellowships that have fun experimenting with an always evolving understanding of church; a de-emphasis on paid staff along with an emphasis on discipleship and simplicity; a more inclusive body of believers and lots of diversity; a safe space for people to explore their faith and ask tough questions; a place where head and heart can walk hand in hand; a holy time and space set in the context of community. Each of these would be descriptors of the Bergthal Mennonite Church.
My eureka moment happened when I attempted to apply my very limited grasp of systems theory to our congregation. Family systems therapy is now kind of the cornerstone approach for family counseling. Rather than focusing exclusively on the issues of one member of a family, systems theory lifts up the whole family system and treats it kind of as an organism all its own. Years ago, Edwin Friedman wrote the classic, “Generation to Generation” in which he applied family systems theory to congregations. This was a must read when I was at seminary. And while I don’t remember much of what I read, the essence has stayed with me.
If I look at Bergthal not as the sum of our present parts, but instead view us from a system’s perspective, then the first thing that jumps out is our age. We are 137 years old and this is how we act. I remember one of our dear and elderly parishioners who has since passed on. As Ralph entered into his 90's, he was disconcerted by the loss of energy he experienced as he aged. In the ten years we knew Ralph, he went from having a good sized vegetable garden each summer to barely being able to handle the walk out to his car. When we get old, our energy dissipates. Bergthal has almost no energy left. And this is not a criticism, but rather a statement of reality.
As the pastor, I also personally experience the energy depletion. When I am asked if Bergthal can take on some new responsibility, whether large or small, the request overwhelms me. As the pastor of the system, I also feel exhausted. Now this is a bit bewildering, because really,we aren’t doing very much at all anymore. Were any of us to get really involved in another congregation, we would be busier with church business and/or activities than we are now. But in this system at Bergthal, we are 137 years old and we feel every bit that age.
There’s another piece to this puzzle as well. When a new church system is born, there’s tons of energy, of course, but there’s something else as well. Brand new congregations have a common vision uniting them. Their energy isn’t getting dispersed in or on different tangents, rather it is all streamlined, channeling in one direction. So, new systems are very energy efficient.
As time goes on, however, that energy-driven focus starts fraying around the edges as different groups within the congregation feel called in different directions. Diversity emerges and usually tensions along with it. Diversity is good, but the friction saps energy. And so the congregation begins to plateau. In our denominational language, this is where we get the shift from “missional” to “maintenance”. The energy focus slowly becomes less outwardly focused and begins moving more inward. This shift is inevitable. It’s not bad, it’s natural. However, it is also the beginning of the end for that church system. Whether the end comes 10, 30, 50 or more years later depends on all sorts of factors including geographic location, size of congregation, shifting demographics and the overall health of the system. For a generation or more, the only thing Bergthal has had going for it in this respect has been the overall health of its system. And it is our health that makes our impending death so difficult to face.
Once a system begins to plateau, the differing visions for the future, differing theological beliefs, lifestyle choices, increasing age gaps become more and more noticeable. But at some point in the life cycle, a congregation makes an unspoken agreement to “agree to disagree” and instead focus the remaining energy simply on survival. With that said, you only have to scratch in the dirt just a little to find the incredible diversity united around the goal of survival. When I first came to Bergthal 10 years ago, it became apparent very quickly that we covered the gamut of every continuum we could think of: political, religious, generational, etc.
This is why it is all but impossible for a dying church to turn things around and be “born again”. The common ground is no longer a common vision inspiring the energy and passion of the congregation. The common ground is simply the church, it’s existence. But dig a little deeper and you find the congregation is made up of people standing in groups of 1 to 10, on little ideological islands without the energy or desire left to figure out how to build bridges and rally behind a common vision once again.
Last winter, I met with everyone in our congregation and asked two questions. One of those questions was, “What do you need from church?” Here’s some of the feedback I received: I need time to sit in a pew and simply rest. I need to be challenged to grow. I need a break from church. I need a faith community with more children. I need a safe and tight-knit community of believers. I need Bergthal. I need a time and place and community to nurture me in my relationship with God. I need a safe place to bring my questions. I need a church steeped in tradition. I need a church willing to break with tradition. I don’t know what I need.
This is such a two-edged sword. One of my absolutely favorite things about Bergthal is our diversity. I love how many different answers I received. There is a richness and texture in this faith community that I cherish. But when you are attempting to start something new, diversity is maybe not so helpful. I also asked parishioners on an individual basis how they would envision a new beginning for our congregation. These responses were just as widely arrayed.
I was so struck by yesterday's lectionary passage from Acts. According to Acts 1:15, by the time Jesus died, he had gathered around him 120 believers who were willing to give up everything to follow him. For a church plant, that’s an outrageously large number. But when we’re talking about a religion plant, that seems outrageously tiny. Nonetheless, this was a group united around their desire to radically live out their faith in an effort to imitate the life and teachings of Jesus. They were all on the same page and they were on fire, quite literally according to the Pentecost text in the next chapter. It was as if their energy as a system kept multiplying exponentially. And people came in droves to join this new movement, committed to following “the Way” of Jesus.
I believe that what has happened in Bergthal is just a microcosm of what is unfolding in the larger Christian Church. Christianity is in a state of flux. Old forms, old traditions and understandings, old doctrines and institutions are giving way to something new emerging. It is so interesting to line this movement up with that time in history where Judaism gave birth to Christianity. There seem to be endless parallels. In this older story, Judaism survived, but was also pretty quickly overtaken in numbers by the Christian movement. Will Christianity survive? Will it be able to reverse the trend of decline and unite around a common vision once again? Will such an entrenched institution be able to radically make itself over? Will we see a split in Christianity as one half perhaps claims the name while the other half evolves into something related to but different than the religion that gave it life?
I’d like to close on a note of excited hope. I had lunch last week with the future church embodied in a young man named I'll call Felix Martinez. Felix was born in Peru. When he was quite young, his family immigrated to Los Angeles and only much later did they become legal citizens of the United States. Four and a half years ago, Felix, his Mom and Dad and his two younger sisters planted a church in Colorado Springs, with an intentional ministry for undocumented workers.
Felix can speak intelligently, articulately and at length on what the words premodern, modern and post-modern mean. He is proud of the experimental church plant he has left behind in Colorado and speaks with excitement about the different approaches they have taken with this model of church. Felix is passionate about church planting. He has no plans to return to Colorado. I’m guessing this is because he will more than likely be involved in several more church plants in his life. Felix is enthusiastic about evangelization in a way I am only now starting to understand. For the first time, I’m also feeling evangelistic about the future church I catch glimpses of. Felix is personable, open-minded, warm and has energy to spare. In Felix’s words and spirit and in the visions of many others like Felix, I see the gospel, the good news, continuing to grow and flourish, hindered not by weary institutions and tired understandings. Death always gives way to new life. So, as this Easter season comes to a close, may we continue to celebrate the possibility of hope reborn. May we continue to celebrate resurrection joy!