My slippery slope to becoming unchurched

November 6th, 2017

This November I find myself in the fifth month of a sabbatical that wraps up at the end of the year, and will soon start focusing on my 2018 speaking and coaching commitments. If there is one thing that these months away from being a local church pastor has revealed, it’s this: how incredibly easy it is for me to become disconnected from the local church — despite the four-plus decades I spent in the pulpit.

Now the word sabbatical is a little misleading. Carolyn and I recently moved to Cincinnati, along with much of what we had accumulated for thirty-some years, to be closer to our children and grandkids. It’s been crazy. My “Papa” responsibilities have also been on the uptick. I love it! But, when you put all of the distractions together, I am learning that I have to be intentional in maintaining the discipline of weekly worship. I am understanding firsthand why people quickly become disengaged.

It doesn’t help any that I am battling with my own cynicism. The church can be so unlike Jesus, as we parrot the pundits of divisiveness that are plaguing the country more passionately than we ever talk about our faith. As a result, I was recently reflecting on what a church is really supposed to be like, and a memory came to mind.

When I visit Boston, I love to run through the city and along the bike paths next to the Charles River early in the morning. My daughter and son-in-law used to live in Boston, part of a neighborhood that was diverse both racially and socioeconomically. There was a United Methodist Church down the block from their home, which like many in urban areas had experienced several decades of decline. The church had been reduced to a congregation of less than fifty elderly folks trying to keep the lights on. A nonprofit organization rented the basement for $1,000 a month for the purpose of running a 7-day per week, 365-days-a-year soup kitchen. The room next to the well-worn 1870 fellowship hall was used for clothing distribution. Various groups volunteered to bring in food to serve the 80-100 indigent brothers and sisters who showed up each evening. On the night I visited, a young adult group from a nearby Catholic church brought and served the food. Now, I don’t know how you best connect to Jesus and the reality of his resurrection presence, but I seem to see him best when I hang with those whom Jesus identified as “the least brothers and sisters of mine.”

On the evening I made my way to the humid 142-year-old basement of a congregation that was mostly unaware of the mission that was happening there (apart from the monthly rent payment), I broke bread with some really special people — some struggling in the death grip of addiction, others in the paralysis of mental illness. I sat with day workers who would stand in a parking lot waiting for anyone to come and offer them an odd job. I sat with these precious people and wondered — wondered what could happen in our dying congregations if the handful of people sitting upstairs in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings would move downstairs the other six days of the week.

What can happen if we dare to follow Jesus — and not just believe in Jesus? This coming Sunday I’ll be in church. The rest of the week, I need to be the church.

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