So What’s a Good Church For? Part 1: What Do We Need to Let Go Of?

When I asked myself this question – “What’s a good church for?” – I found I had a lot of different responses, and ended up writing a very long blog posting, too long to digest at one sitting.  So I’ve decided to send it out in “pieces,” in four sections: the first, “What do we need to let go of?”; the second, “What’s our core purpose?”; third, “So what about core values?”; and finally, “Let’s keep praying.”  I look forward to hearing your thoughts about these questions.

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#1  What Do We Need to Let Go Of?

What’s the purpose of your congregation, the vision, the “why”? Oh, your church is busy doing a hundred and one things, and all of them good and even important… but do you know what the essentials are, the priorities, the “treasure” in the earthen vessel? As Pegi Ridout said in a comment on a previous blog posting, “We have expended a great deal of corporate energy on “how.” To ask “why” is a more powerful and motivating question and draws us deeper.”

Sometimes we’re not clear about what’s essential until we’re forced to let go of stuff – “the way we used to do it.” I think that’s what’s happening for the United Church these days – a bit like down-sizing, moving from the familiar family home, where you raised all the kids, and now, into a condo perhaps, an apartment, a shared home, or a residence… or maybe putting everything into storage and setting off into a new adventure.

There’s a fine poem by Francis Dorff   – “Lightening the Load,” – which talks about dumping all unnecessary baggage off the camel if we want to get through the desert alive, eventually letting go of even the camel itself. Then, the poet says (and this is what I find exciting), we might be free enough to catch a glimpse of a “burning bush,” which is to say, the “letting go” is not just an unwelcome necessity, not an end in itself, but rather, an opportunity to catch a fresh glimpse of God and mission.

I wonder what you take with you when you’re heading into the wilderness? I think about Jesus sending out his disciples, described in this Sunday’s gospel reading, with instructions to take  no bread, no bag, no money… only a staff and the gospel message. I also remember Jesus talking about the vine and the branches, and the need for some serious pruning.

So… for you, and for your congregation… what do you need to let go of?

Photo: Tony Frates, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

23 thoughts on “So What’s a Good Church For? Part 1: What Do We Need to Let Go Of?

  1. As my four year old grandson said to me when he was coaxing me into his pool, Just jump in Grandma and let it rip!!!

    • Hi Barb… nice image. Your grandson would probably like the story of Nashon… a friend let me know that Moses was not the first person to step into the Red Sea… here’s the information in case you didn’t see it in the previous posting:
      The Midrash relates that during the Exodus, when the Israelites reached the Red Sea, it did not automatically part. The Israelites stood at the banks of the sea and wailed with despair, but Nahshon entered the waters. Once he was up to his nose in the water, the sea parted. The popular Yiddish saying “to be a Nachshon” means to initiate something. So… to have faith is to wade into the deep waters, up to your neck, over your head, and I ask myself, “Am I a Nachshon?” Are you?

      • When I use the analogy of walking into the water over my head I know I can swim so that makes me believe that I can be part of the changes that need to be made. It is exciting to be part of a new
        journey listening to new ideas.

      • Wow that is beautiful idea! I never knew that part of the story and that gives the story a whole new meaning for me. Thank you.

  2. “What [do] you take with you when you’re heading into the wilderness?” Well, that depends. If you’re a novice, you take a lot of stuff. If you’re an experienced trekker, you need very little because you know how to live there. Are we carrying a lot of baggage because we don’t know how to live in this context?

    • Hi Pegi — I wonder if we don’t fully know the context. We’re not sure what’s needed, and what of our past might prove useful in the present time, and what will just weigh us down. If we get clearer about our “why” we might be able to travel more lightly.

  3. I received an email from Doug Leatherdale, a long-time member of the United Church in Salmon Arm, BC (for 46 years), where he has been involved in social justice leadership for many years. He says, “It always makes me proud that we [in the United Church) try to walk the talk. So, just on that note, I would be sad if we did not work to preserve the essence of who we are and find new ways to meet the needs of those who tell me, ” If I were to go to a church, I would go to a United Church.”
    Doug offered a very humorous and effective way of speaking to the challenges facing the church:

    “I have read your blog and understand your questions, the “Why” rather than the “How.” I believe that they are intertwined but both are changing and the church is not.

    We are spiritual beings, everyone in their own way. But we all need support as we pilgrimage through the various stages of life — where and how we find that support is the issue.

    So… one way of describing the present challenge:

    I am one of the geese that lays the golden eggs which keep this poultry business active. Last year, I noticed that the number of layers in the chicken house was beginning to diminish and more importantly, they were often some of the high production birds. No new birds are arriving to replace them. It is also apparent that while the eggs as we know them were highly saleable in the past, there does not seem to be a market for them in the present day.

    The farmer needs to start to look at new ways to market the eggs to meet the new tastes and needs of the consumer public. There are a number of possible new recipes for different egg dishes, to accompany the farm product going to market.

    But sometimes the egg marketing board seems to be a bit dysfunctional.

    From where I sit on the roost, it appears that the farmer is reducing the farm help costs rather than addressing the apparent lack of popularity for soufflés. In fact, he does not even need the same farm help, as the number and size of poultry farms and farm yield are diminishing. The public still needs and wants eggs, but they appear to need and want them in different recipes or perhaps with a take-out lunch rather than the traditional scrambled eggs for breakfast

    I believe that our farmer does what he has always done best and since he still has enough eggs for breakfast, he will not change his marketing strategy until the last goose is gone.

    But there are successful new ideas out there for other farm products which we hear about in the hen house. Everyone needs to eat, and eggs (and poultry) are an integral part of who we are and our daily diet, but what is changing is where we get our food from or how it is presented or, even when we choose to eat,
    The poultry industry needs to examine today’s consumer. No one is saying they don’t want eggs, they just don’t like the old recipes or how it is served. Imagine for a moment if we did not have eggs or a poultry business.
    Full of ideas, but running out of eggs in the hen house….”

    Douglas Leatherdale
    Salmon Arm First United Church
    Salmon Arm, B.C.

  4. we need to let go of the old and bring in the new nothing we have not heard before, but we need to just do it! . This weekend our minister is camping with his family and other young families from the community and congregation, multi- generational. no it’s not time off for the minister, but a way to reach those who don’t necessarily go to a church building, we will continue to find new ways of ” doing church” plus it gives the others in the congregation an opportunity to listen to another voice on Sunday morning which happens to be the worship team this year.

    • Sounds exciting… and you’re right… sometimes “we need to just do it.” And try new approaches. It’s true there will be times when we fall flat on our faces. We don’t do failure with much grace in the church — which is surprising, given our faith story (Peter’s denials and all). In the business world they assume that for every successful product there will probably be nine failures. So let’s experiment a LOT MORE.

    • I agree! We have to change the way we do church. We did worship on the beach, where everyone sat on the sand or brought lawn chairs to sit on. The minister sat in a circle with the children, who played in the sand throughout the informal worship and participated in the children’s time through using the items found on the beach as props for the story.The setting itself with the fresh air, the smell and sound of the ocean, the warmth of the sun and the happy faces of people gave us all a sense of awe that the spirit was truly in this place. As we lifted our voices in a song of thanksgiving, “This is the Day That God Has Made”, we all felt truly blessed.

  5. Hi Lorraine,
    Yes to giving up power… a $20 theological word for letting go might be “kenosis”… which is what Jesus did… letting go of protection, God-power… being/becoming human. But I’m not so sure of letting go of relevance. sometimes I think that’s part of our problem… our ways of communicating don’t always feel that relevant. But maybe I’m misunderstanding your meaning.

    • My concern with “relevance” ties right back to “power”. I know we have at least figured out we don’t want to go back to “Christendom” where the church had “power” and took it’s “relevance” added European culture, forgot the gospel, turned away from God, and sinned in Christ’s name. We have come along way, we have a long road ahead. Good News, God is out there, leading us on.

  6. Ebenezer United Church in Edmonton, celebrated it’s closings of 57 years of ministry in the West Edmonton. That was letting go. However social justice , spiritual care, and healing ministry is its legacy for the west end of Edmonton, using the money from the sell of the church for a cooperate ministry with three other United Church and many non-profit organizations. It is about touching people’s lives with the unconditional love and grace from God. Hopefully, Edmonton Presbytery can see the new light of ministry.

    • Yes!! Well said Jo-Anne. It is difficult for most of us to let go of buildings which have become “thin places” because of all that has happened within the walls… prayer, tears, joy, hearts strangely warmed. Sometimes the building can be radically re-purposed. Sometimes it needs to close, and the resources used intentionally for new ministry in the neighbourhood. Takes discerning and courage and faith.

  7. In many respects, our chore would be easier if we were starting from scratch to build a new church, rather than trying to decide what what elements or components that need to be abandoned. I’ve heard many a contractor say how hard renovations are compared to building anew.

    There’s a tendency (in much of what I’ve read and heard of Comprehensive Review) to address shortcomings of finance, infrastructure, organization and process. In my heart of hearts, I do not think these are the priorities for the new church. I think they will follow (or become evident) from a return to the teachings of Jesus…something closer to the model of the early church, before power, control and dogma exerted their influence. I think most of what we need to know and do is in that early model…applied in the present-day and future context. There’s room for everyone in that tent.

    What do we need to let go of? Most of what doesn’t fit into that early model.

    • Hi Patrick… yes, it probably would be easier to start from scratch… and there’s lots of opportunity with new ministries to do just that. I’ve heard many people say that our context is very similar to that of the early church, and the Book of Acts can offer many insights.
      We are thirsty for the “new wine” — and yet sometimes shaping a new wineskin can help hold space and possibility for the new. As long as we remember that the “how” needs to be integrally connected to the “why”. And if we distract ourselves and focus only on financial and structural questions, then we’re in trouble. It’s why I’m excited by the first proposal of the Comprehensive Review… Catching the Spirit, or whatever we might choose to call it… a commitment to and investment (of energy, time and money) in new forms of ministry.

  8. In 2009 my Dad died and I presided over his funeral. In 2012 my mother also died while I was alone in the room with her (my brothers and others just happened to not be present). I was ordained in 2012 and am serving a pastoral charge where the ‘former’ generation is passing away. I now have the privilege of walking this road with them as they too ‘let go’ of their loved ones.

    And so my parishioners and I are in exactly the same place! Learning how to live on without the presence of those who taught us how to love God and serve others. ‘Service to God, through service to church and community’ is what I learned from my mom and dad. That is the Christian ethic that I pray that we (both church and individuals) ‘hold onto’ and never lose!

  9. We need to let go of counting Sunday worship attendance as the indication of how many people are ‘members’ of our church. Church (as a community living out Love as exemplified by Jesus) can and does happen in so many different ways, in different places and on different days of the week. I was delighted when I was at a Summer Bible Camp training day with a couple of our volunteer helpers and one helper who had only ever been in our building to attend the annual Bible Camp, identified herself as “from Emmanuel United”. We are her only connection to a church but she feels connected! For many folk Sunday worship just doesn’t speak to them spiritually but they need and want a faith community to be a part of so they can live the Sacred Love they know. I think the church has to let go of the concept of membership and learn to see itself as a fluid community.

  10. There is a “willing” letting go and a “forced” letting go. Our tendency is towards the latter because we often stay with the familiar; whether it’s ways of worship, place of worship… you name it! It took God 40 years to work on Moses until he let go his arrogance and self dependence to embrace the miracle performing, history altering power of God. I believe that until we are willing to let go our self dependent constructs and turn to God in total dependence, we will not change as we should. Peter didn’t walk on water until he left the safety of the boat: neither will we!

  11. Gary, I just wanted to let you know that I used much of this post in last week’s reflection time where as a congregation we created our “Prayer Fish” for GC42 and prayed the prayers for the Prayer Pilgrimage. During worship we each wrote a post it note prayer and I wanted to share them with you because I think they’re beautiful and a great reminder of the people in our pews as we meet together to discern big changes!
    Prayers from Worship July 5th 2015 – For GC42 Prayer Fish

    · Prayers for consensus on decisions affecting the future of our church
    · I pray for those with health issues and their families as they proceed in life’s journey
    · Youth programs to interest kids back into church and Sunday School
    · I pray to help those less fortunate in health and well being
    · I pray to not judge others but give constructive criticism
    · I pray for acceptance of all changes within our church structure and trust in God that all is good and that we are not alone
    · Life is a casting off – both over the years but also day to day until we truly “Let Go and Let God.”
    · I pray that we listen to each other. Be open for new ideas
    · I pray for the people of the First Nations. May we all make amends for the past and what they have suffered
    · For all of those who have lost a loved one
    · Pray for family and friends to be healthy and happy
    · Pray for forgiveness and tolerance toward each other
    · I pray for the sick with all illnesses from mental to physical and let them know God is with them as they struggle daily
    · I pray for our United Church that they will have a positive vision in this modern world
    · Dear Lord, I pray for all our congregation in Embro and around Canada. That all are loved and find their faith will carry them through the hard times that they face
    · I pray that as we face changes in our church we will have courage and love
    · I hope and trust that I am able to live another couple of years in good health
    · I pray that our church remains strong and united. I pray that everyone will be respected and honoured
    · I pray for a ride to church
    · Praise that the church will continue to work for world peace and the care of the underprivileged
    · Romans 16:25 Let us give glory to God! God is able to make you stand firm in your faith. To the only God who alone is wise, be glory through Jesus Christ!
    · I pray that the United Church can find the right balance of continuity and change that will enable us to honour our past and survive into the future
    · I pray that those who are on a new journey will have God’s help
    · I pray that our congregation knows our true calling
    · I pray for calm to those who live in choppy waters
    · Dear God, help us make everyone welcome in our church
    · Youth programs to interest the young people back to the church and Sunday School
    · Pray for those who are so quick to judge others
    · Pray for new members to join the church. Pray that good decisions will be made at General Council
    · I pray for honesty and truth in the future of our church. It must be meaningful. Not to follow routines “that have always been done that way!”
    · Make our church home a loving, welcoming home for everyone
    Amen.

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