At a church leadership retreat, a tall man with a mustache and red suspenders stands up and says, “Several of us here find ourselves wondering if our church is still God-centered. It seems to us something’s missing.” At another retreat, a woman blurts out, “But what do we believe?
Anthony Siracusa came to First Congregational UCC in Memphis in 2002. A legally emancipated 17-year-old and a high-school dropout, he came with sadness and anger but also with ideas and hope. He was living in an anarchist commune and working as an apprentice at a local bike shop. He had heard that First Congregational had space to share.
Who cares about history? I think about this question a lot because of my job as director of the Congregational Library in Boston. My association with this venerable Yankee institution, a large collection of things both important and inexplicable, means I’m often invited to churches that are celebrating anniversaries.
I began the visit with “Hello, I’m the new pastor at the Presbyterian church.” An innocent enough introduction, I thought. “Wow. But you’re so young!” came the reply.“Well, I just started. And sure, I’m on the young side,” I said, hoping to move on quickly.“No, I mean, you’re really young!”At this point it was difficult to know what to say. To be honest, I was frustrated. I hadn't gone to college plus seminary plus spent an extra year as intern only to have my lack of wrinkles and my intact hairline greeted with shock.
Every week tens of thousands of people attend virtual worship services that use an online ministry called LifeChurch.tv. A hundred churches worldwide are part of the LifeChurch network, and 23,000 additional churches have downloaded LifeChurch resources—for free—from open.lifechurch.tv.
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.
Here in America, our family lives present a strange paradox. We often wish that our families would function in an emotionally healthy way and look something like the family on Leave It to Beaver. Yet it’s normal for a family to be dysfunctional and fractured. There’s our ideal of family, and then there’s the reality.
It’s always wonderful when a new family joins our church. It’s easy for the congregation to feel that it’s fulfilling its calling, and easy for me to think that I’m being a good pastor. Of course, people also leave churches. I confess that over the years there have been a few people whose departure was a relief to me, but for the most part it is very sad when someone leaves our church, particularly since we are a small congregation, and every person’s absence is noted and deeply felt.
When I began my ministry at Church of the Redeemer, I worried each Sunday that the choir would outnumber the congregation. Everybody knew we had to grow. “We have to grow, you know,” they’d say, with all the enthusiasm of a person scheduling a dental appointment. “We need to attract new members and change,” they would say.
When we moved to New York, my husband, Chris, picked a corner of the city to own. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which commemorates those who died in the American Civil War, is a templelike structure surrounded by formal paved terraces. It’s also a hangout for vagrants and skateboarding teens. Broken bottles, crack vials and newspapers routinely settle into its nooks and crannies.