In my early twenties, I was hired as an outreach worker for an inner-city congregation that had decided, after years of disengagement with the neighbourhood, they should do something. But they didn’t know what to do. That was my job to figure out.
One afternoon, I walked in off the street, and through the office, just in time to overhear a council member saying to another, “I don’t really care about any of this new ministry. As far as I’m concerned, we’re here until the money runs out.”
Those words stung in the moment. The congregation had hired me to listen deeply in the neighbourhood for the needs of the people, and how we might respond. And yet, in this moment, the whole endeavour was called into question. I had accepted the job thinking this work was part of some wider discernment, only to discover that it wasn’t fully supported by leadership. It hurt. Like many moments of discomfort, it taught me something, too.
A few years down the road, I’m coming to understand that the council members’ words (and my hiring in the first place) were opposite sides of the same coin. In both cases, the church was called to be the hero of its own story. We can stay until the money runs out or we can try to shore up our finances through outreach: bring in the young families, rebuild the Sunday School of the 60s, do whatever it takes.
But where does God factor into either equation?
Over the course of the last few months, I have immersed myself in a new book by Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand entitled “When Church Stops Working.” The title’s double-entendre invites us to examine the central crisis facing the church today. While it is tempting to identify this crisis as “the crisis of decline,” the authors point to a far greater crisis:
“The crisis the church faces is that it worships and serves such a God who is so great, so other, that we cannot say, or even know, anything about this God. And yet–here is the crisis–we nevertheless must speak of and witness to this One who is God.”
These days it can feel as though there is a famine of hearing the word of the Lord. But is it that God no longer speaks? Or is it perhaps that in our rapidly accelerating culture, we have been formed in ways of being and relating that make it difficult to slow down, to attend to one another, and to listen for the God who still speaks today?
We struggle to speak of and witness to this One who is God, in no small part because we have forgotten. We have forgotten to stop. We have forgotten to listen. We have forgotten to wait for the Lord whose day is near.
In this season of advent we are reminded, as Blair and Andy write, that “the church has no life other than waiting for and witnessing to the God who reveals Godself in the world in the backward ways of love.”
When Church Stops Working is a reminder of the God who is God. It is a reminder that God is the hero of the story, even though God shows up in the most unlikely way, born to the most unlikely parents, in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is a reminder that the church has faced crises far more serious than that of institutional decline, and that even so, God still speaks.
In this season of advent (and in the days that follow), may we strive to create space in our lives and in the life of our congregations to wait patiently for the Lord who inclines an ear and hears our cry. Perhaps as part of your practice of listening, you might consider reading this book and discussing it with others in your community. However, as we journey into these advent days, may we do so anticipating that God acts – as God always acts – for the life of the world.