My Hopes for the Church

After the 1917-1918 pandemic, the world was eager to get back to what it was before. The pandemic lasted two years or longer, and at the end, churches and schools and businesses continued to churn out the same old same old. At least until the stock market crashed in 1929. But this time, I suspect that we may have an opportunity. Yes, there are strong desires to go back to normal in every corner of life. At the same time, there is a growing suspicion that we won’t be able to go back to the cherished good old days.

As the human population of the planet increases, global travel increases, and humans increasingly move into wild areas formerly uninhabited by humans, we will see rapidly spreading pandemics with greater frequency than one per century. This is not a pleasant thought, but we must prepare for it or as Ben Franklin observed, “failure to plan is planning to fail.” Right now, we see less desire among millennials to attend church in person – even less than before. Older people want to return to in-person church, but that is not the future. We see church giving and church budgets shrinking. We see the needs of the poor in our communities rising faster than non-profits can handle. And we see church properties less utilized than ever. Meanwhile most churches with under 150 average Sunday attendance (pre-pandemic) find themselves simply unable to afford a seminary-trained, full time pastor.

Like it or not, these are the hard facts confronting us. Urban areas will likely see consolidation of churches, but in rural areas, this may not be an option. For smaller, denominationally isolated congregations, the decision may come down to, “close or get creative.” For me, closure represents a failure to live up to the commandment of Jesus to go forth and teach people to love each other as God loves them. How can small churches with meager resources stay in “business”?

Historically, the deacons (Greek diakonos) were the servants. The word means “one who waits on tables.” And the world needs more servants of all kinds, ordained as deacons or just people who are passionate about caring for others. The Episcopal Church is sacramentally oriented around baptism and Eucharist (the Lord’s supper). This would seem to be a different direction than the needs of the world for service would imply. So, let’s get creative.

Can we define baptism as the defining moment for an individual’s mission? Baptism becomes both the entrance of a person into the community of believers in the good news of the resurrection (hence God’s love) AND the beginning of one’s life of service to others. We need to bolt onto baptism the community significance of the sacrament as of greater importance than the individual component.

Can we define Eucharist as the point where grace is multiplied instead of the usual interpretation of personal salvation? The biblical basis for this would be the disciples feeding 5,000 men plus women and children (multiplication) versus the cross (personal salvation).

If we go back to the “ABC” understanding of priestly ordination, that is, priests can Absolve, Bless and Consecrate, that means that ALL other actions of a parish priest can be done by other people. This includes running a vestry, doing administrative stuff, and even consecrating the Eucharistic elements every Sunday. Priests would be needed for doing weddings, baptisms and funerals, but we could restructure parish ministry for smaller churches so that a full time priests is not necessary.

I think a return to the same old same old for the Episcopal Church would be a disaster. We are being given an opportunity to redefine ourselves for the future. All we need to do is get creative.

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