I sit in a lot of meetings, and I mean a lot. Rarely does a week go by where I’m not at least on a conference call or web meeting. Usually they all end up in the same place, how do we turn around a declining institution. Well, it’s not always that blunt, but usually whatever the difficulty we are facing can be attributed to the changing role of the church and religion in society. Lack of money? We need more people! Small programs? We need more people! Empty sanctuary on Sunday? We need more people!
More than once in the last few months I’ve found myself reflecting on a specific narrative in Scripture from Exodus. I keep thinking about Moses and Aaron leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and what that meant for everyone. Specifically, I keep reading Exodus 16:1-3:
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
In the midst of discovering a new way to live, the Israelites really just wished they could go back to the way things were. Even if those times were awful, and would result in death, at least it was familiar. At least they would get food, and now how to function. The problem is, you can’t go back! You are on a path to something greater, Israel, and it ain’t back there in Egypt.
I feel that this narrative speaks to not only the church today, but change in our own lives. Right now, I’m going to talk about the church. It seems obvious when you hear that the church is not the same as it was in the 1950’s, but too often we act like it is. We know we need to try new things to reach out to people, to build relationships, to show the need for a spiritual community, but we still expect people to just show up at our doors because of a fancy flyer or flashy website. I hear bemoaning that “kids these days just don’t believe like we did.” (I’ll admit, I join in the bemoaning at times.) But, its time to step it up.
How, you say? Well, we have to look at the big picture. We need to be collaborative as churches where we can. Buying into a “Free market Capitalist View of Church Growth” isn’t going to help the world. Churches can’t see each other as “competitors” vying for the same precious resources. Guess what, there’s a lot of people out there that don’t go to church, and if even a fraction of them started, we wouldn’t all have room for them anyway. So, I think we are better off asking these questions: Where can we share resources? Where can we assist in relationship building? Where can we defer to another because they have a specialized gift for that? I think long gone are the days where every church met every need. I’m not just talking about within a United Methodist context, how do we collaborate with like-minded Christian communities no matter what the denominational background?
We are in the wilderness, unfamiliar with the dynamics, unsure of where we will end up, but holding on to a hope and praying it will come true. As much as we want to turn back and be familiar, moving forward is our only option. Tomorrow is a new day, new possibilities for our lives, will we move forward in order to see the Manna from heaven?
Remember who and whose we are, we are God’s people. Created in God’s image, fashioned in God’s love, to be co-creators of a new and transformed world through the life and example of Jesus Christ. Go in hope. Go in peace.