I. You remember how Alice sees a bottle marked “DRINK ME,” which she does and shrinks so small she can’t reach the key to open the door to the garden. And you remember how she eats a piece of cake that grows her back up to size again, only to shrink once more then drinks from another bottle that makes her grow so big she gets stuck in the house.
Children love this story probably because it reflects their frustrations at never being the right size to do what they want. It’s no joke, it can be scary. Are we ever the right size? Churches wonder, too, whether we are ever the right size. Like Alice, at times we feel like we are too short to reach the table which has the key on it. At other times, our to-do list is so long it won’t fit through the door. Churches can be too small to afford a full time minister. Some can be so big that they are unable to organize effectively, for education or action. Just like when we were children, never being the right size to do what we want is frustrating.
Eliot Church was once so big it contemplated going to two Sunday services. Since then, our liberal progressive tradition has shrunk from its origin in the early 20th century with Walter Raushenbush and the Social Gospel from our heyday in the 1940s, 50s and ‘60s. Eliot Church has shrunk right along with that once grand tradition. It deeply concerns us now when we wish our influence was big enough to counter the “Christian” white nationalists today.
What was in that bottle anyway? Will we ever locate the other bottle which “right-sized” Alice?
II. Eliot Church has taken steps to understand and adapt to the size we are. That happened during the SMALL CHURCH seminar Susan Nason led here last March when we awoke to the fact that Eliot is SMALL. People were feeling the effects–volunteers shorthanded, overworked. The advice was welcome: do less–better, be selective.
Another step was taken last year when Eliot acknowledged we didn’t have the families or children to keep our CE Director, nor the likelihood such a person could turn that around, right now.
And even before that, a decade ago Eliot took steps to prune its governance structure to fit the size of the congregation. That was a much-needed practical step. What other adaptive steps might be needed now? Well, that remains for you and Rev. Domenik to determine. But today, I want you to take just one spiritual step.
III. We only have to remind ourselves today and every Sunday of what a church is. There are different ways of describing what churches do–field hospital, half-way house, refuge, oasis, gas station–these are some functions a church can fulfill. Now I just want you to consider what, at base, we are. A church is a “quality community,” not just a menu of programs in a building, not a “Community Center,” or in a cohort like the intelligence community, the academic community which are special interest, solidarity, or professional groupings.
Jesus wanted Israel to restore the Temple to its true purpose, which is to be a home for God and place of prayer for all people. Jesus was not afraid to place the Temple in the category of “disposable.” He challenged them, destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days. He couldn’t have meant this literally of course, and the early church understood that He was referring to his own Resurrection. But the Resurrection of Christ wasn’t just a one-off. It is a model for the never-ending process of regaining and reshaping life against threats to our existence. Resurrection is a perpetual possibility, a spiritual process. At the same time, Jesus was referring to rebuilding of the institution, the Temple of which he was a part, meaning even physically.
A small church needs not simply to do less–it needs to own the fact of our being a quality community and do what fosters in everyone the feeling of being a “quality community.” Whatever else we may do, this spiritual achievement falls within our grasp. Every Sunday people can go out feeling they have been received by a quality community, i.e., a real church. This is what Paul promised you–that you no longer feel you are strangers and aliens; that you would be Fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. He wanted us to feel the confidence of having for foundation the apostles and the prophets, and Christ himself as the cornerstone, being an organism, as it were, that grows into a holy temple, such that what you have “built” (with or without an actual building) becomes spiritually a dwelling place for God.
If we believe we are that “quality community,” people will feel all these things when they walk into this sacred space, this Temple, or hopefully by the time they leave. We should measure ourselves against this expectation. We are all about being something older, bigger, deeper and newer than ourselves. We offer through this building an alternative space in which to create God’s Temple–us, a quality community. We acknowledge that we are subject to creation, destruction, and re-creation, and all that at many different levels–spiritually, programmatically, etc. But we are the Body of Christ, born to die and rise again, even as we sit here. It is well worth the effort to maintain this edifice, although right now and for a few more years this small congregation strains to do so. But it will not always be thus, if you allow your old dreams to crumble and to dream new ones. Allow God’s impossible vision to be planted in you. As I like to say, “Don’t just DO something, be still and put on the mind of Christ.”
To this end, a church needs to get out of the way of its own life-process, as we have periodically done, admit we are a small church, and allow this fact to take its course. Realize that nevertheless you are meant for more. Not just more personal success or more personal gain, but you are meant for more than is even dreamed of in the workday world where people are preoccupied (and understandably so) for their survival.
IV. Churches are forever shrinking or bursting their seams. As for Eliot Church, the answer to the question whether we are too big or too small, the answer is–maybe it doesn’t matter. Whatever its size, a church is in the Resurrection business, the business of breaking down and rebuilding as a quality community. There is a classic expression for this in our theology–reformata, semper reformanda.
So, see if you catch Paul’s spirit in this translation from Eugene Petersen’s The Message:
That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.
Don’t just DO something, be still and put on the mind of Christ.