Tuesday, May 3, 2011

If We Build It, They Will Come: Field of Dreams

They came once. So they built it. They kept coming for a few decades. Maybe even a century. Then fewer came. Then the ones who were left began to age.

Soon the ones aging were the vast majority of the ones who were left. Look around at many older mainline churches, and the sign on the fence for special parking will seem like a redundancy. Because, aren't all church-goers elderly? Don't they all carry some disabilities?

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 58% of the congregations have an average worship attendance of 100 or fewer, the size considered the minimum in order to employ a full-time pastor. Oh, and those were 2008 numbers.

Here in the Oregon Synod, 12 of 118 congregations are growing. The others are holding steady or declining. And with churches and the mission of the gospel, holding steady IS declining.

In 1969 I was shipped off to San Antonio, Texas, for Air Force basic training. On a weekend pass, I attended church with two other buddies, both Lutherans from Iowa. St. XXXXX Lutheran in the heart of San Antonio, was an American Lutheran Church congregation, I believe. Church was packed that Sunday. Nearly all were white folks looking and dressed much like those I'd grown up around in Nebraska.

Less than 20 years later, that church was gone. Closed. The neighborhood around it was becoming increasingly African American and Hispanic. "Our people" (at least, not enough of "our people") didn't see "those people" as God's people. Well, maybe they were God's people. But they weren't St. XXXXX people. Not those people......

"Those people" were never made them feel welcome. "Our people" never went out to invite them or get to know them. Instead, "our people" clung to a vision of who they were that matched the neighborhood of 25 years ago. Or more.

The etched glass on the window pane is aside the main entrance to the church of the SE Asian Vicariate along NE Sandy Blvd in Portland. Look closely at the outlines of the three nation states represented: Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia. The map is superimposed over the cross.

Or the cross surrounds the map. It's a large and growing congregation: tons of young people, people we were once at war with. Refugees and immigrants built this church into what it is today: a house of God and a vibrant center of community life.

That's how churches of European immigrants started out. It's the way they all start.

Whether or not they remain such has entirely to do with how churches hear the gospel and see their mission:

A) stability and preservation in a changing world


B) outreach and rebirth in a perpetually changing and challenging world.

I'm betting that Jesus is betting on option B.

What do you think?


PS: The sign in the first picture? It's in the parking lot of another church right across the street from the one with the etched glass window.

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