Most churches have the equivalent of Eat at Joe's signs, advertising religious services so that people will stop, come in and taste what is good. The signs are imperative; they command us to eat here and not there.
My contract as “intentional transitional pastor” or interim with East Bay Community Church (not its real name) had expired, and I was working on a month-by-month agreement. By the grace of God, the church and I had moved through five developmental tasks proposed by the Intentional Ministry Network. Healing had taken place, and a sharpened vision statement had been communicated. I was feeling affirmed by the church and knew that its leaders valued my expertise and contribution, as well as me as a person. Then one morning I heard the news: the pastoral candidate would preach the next month, with a congregational vote to follow on the same night.
Two church members came in to talk to me on the same day. The first said the church had betrayed her, limited her, injured her. She described the church as indifferent, cowardly and sick. The second member said the same church was her lifeline and her salvation, her family and her divine appointment.
It was Wednesday. Time to visit my youth intern again. I really, really disliked Wednesday mornings. As I walked out of the office, I said, “Be back around noon,” to my administrative assistant. She knew where I was headed and smiled in support.
It’s beautiful when the congregational system is humming along—the church is Spirit-filled, worshipers are bearing each other’s burdens, submitting to one another and rejoicing continually. When faced with major decisions, the congregation seeks the Lord and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After prayer and copious dialogue, a consensus emerges. Or the congregational system hits a pothole. The decision-making process is accelerated or compressed for a decision that has huge implications for the life of the church; the issues raised are theologically profound and the consequences painful no matter what is decided. At these times, a congregation can see its unity shattered.
“How do we do effective evangelism? All our ‘outreach’ events are just another excuse for fellowship!” Our new associate pastor looked around at the outreach committee, but nobody answered him. He pressed his point. “I mean, how do we actually reach nonbelievers, not just believers?” Eventually a discussion got under way, and finally one idea stuck. Our town was known as a “jazz town,” with a couple of jazz venues that were always crowded. We hatched the idea of Jazz Night. We’d hire a name-brand jazz artist to play at the church, convert the sanctuary into a coffee shop atmosphere, put church brochures on the tables, be ready to greet people and then “let it rip.” What could go wrong?
Over the years, the fiberglass steeple had gradually weakened, and the hot sun and brutal winters had changed it into a streaked and stained obelisk. Its paint was flaking and splintering, its cracks widening. The “case of the stained steeple” went on the council agenda, and the steeple was taken down and carted off to a field just south of the building. The council neglected to decide on its disposal, so there it rested. The grass grew high and the steeple was forgotten—until the day the director of the preschool looked out the window and shouted, “Pastor, we have to do something about that man out there!”
Support the Christian Century
The Century's work relies primarily on subscriptions and donations. Thank you for supporting nonprofit journalism.