Author's Note: I've been overwhelmed by the response to my last column. I am confident that this one will land with a thud. But I do want to take a moment to thank all of those who have written comments and emails of support, as well as those many colleagues who have written to thank me for a little truth-telling.
For the record, those who have jumped to the conclusion that I am a pissed-off burnt-out pastor locked in a death-match with my congregation could not be more wrong. We're doing the hard work of successfully turning around a church that suffered years of decline. That requires hard truth and strenuous covenant keeping. That I published the article locally in a blog my congregants read should tell you much. Now, since you're listening...
I used to collect comic books, at one point owning over 10,000 including 20 years of every book DC put out. When I went to seminary, I gave up the hobby, not having the time or money, and being too OCD to do it part way.
Instead, I gave my Superman comics to the sons of a close friend, sold off some titles, and packed up my Batman's for my new life. Even though I read a few of the more sophisticated imprints, I never saw the “Walking Dead” series.
But a pastor should have at least a passing familiarity with popular culture, so when the AMC series became a hint, I gave it a try, and have seen several episodes. (I never want to be the pastor who famously posted her sermon title on the sign board at a busy intersection without knowing what “Got junk in your trunk?” really meant!)
For those who haven't seen it, “The Walking Dead” is part of the new zombie craze. There have been some amazing essays during this most recent recurrence of an old theme. The uneasy tether between our spirits and our flesh has always troubled us, and while we have experience of bodies failing the spirit, we seem especially terrified of the spirit failing the body. The survivors of “The Walking Dead” have to survive, but they also have the horror of seeing loved ones who have become “undead.”Let Patch save you time. Don't ever miss another Rev. Gary column. Get it delivered right to your inbox or smartphone everyday with our free newsletter. Fast signup here.
Serving as pastor to an American church in the early 21st century is a whole lot like “The Walking Dead.” You are fighting for survival with diminishing resources, and the beloved thing, the church of the mid-20th century, is dead, but hasn't stopped moving, though parts continue to fall off, and it gets uglier by the day. And those who claim to love it the most, preserve it in its long slow undeath.
You see, the church, as defined as the people gathered to follow the Way of Jesus, has always been at its worst when it has abandoned the simple forms of the early church and has instead adopted the shape of the culture around it.
We need look no further than the corruption in the Roman church/ monarchy during the Middle Ages, or the train wreck that was the Puritan dictatorship after England's Civil War, to see what I mean. And during the mid-20th century, the American church, especially in its Mainline Protestant form, came to look much like a non-profit corporation/civic club. Phyllis Tickle
speaks eloquently about the cultural dynamics immediately after the Second World War that lead to this artificial boom in church building, little of which had to do with God and much of which had to do with cultural norms around what polite civic-minded folks did. When that form of church started to fail over two decades ago, some sat around wringing their hands, complaining that young people don't come to church while refusing to make any changes that might make the faith relevant to anyone who is young.
Still others switched models, from 1950's Lions club to popular culture entertainment. They packaged-up Jesus and sold him as a product, a self-help program wrapped in a rave, with lasers and fog-machine. And that is now failing as well.
Most of us are trapped in the room with the mid-century zombie, which had enough momentum to stumble on for a couple of decades after it was dead, kept alive and suffering by those who claim to love it the most.
The generation that controls most churches has failed to understand Jesus' parable of the talents, where the Master scolds the servant who hides the gold in fear, and praises the one who takes bold risks to grow what has been left in his care.
The current leadership of most churches will not hear “good and faithful servant,” but will be judged as wicked and fearful, as those who destroyed the faith, for there will be no Christian future if we do not adapt, preserving ancient core practices while embracing the dynamic and changing world created by our living God.
They obsess over robes and ritual, insist on doing the same old fundraisers that have worked since Johnson was in office, and they are killing the church, at the rate of thousands of closures a year.
Yet, there hope. A new church is being born. A tiny number of congregations are experiencing new life by taking chances. New and renewed forms of church are emerging, some ancient like neo-monasticism, some contemporary, loose networks of faithful entrepreneurs.
Some pastors are just too tired and too beat up at this point to help you turn around your church.
But some still have a spark, a shelf in their office lined with the stories and strategies of turn-around churches.
Listen to your pastor and you just might hear a dream, a pastor's dream, or maybe I should say God's dream.
For God dreams dreams for us bigger than we can ever dream for ourselves. Leave the zombie church behind, and like survivors of a zombie apocalypse, break free into a new dawn, good and faithful servant.
This is the day the Lord has made. We can choose to rejoice and be glad in it.