I am speaking to Eliot Church today, but what I have to say applies generally to many other churches, so I hope you stay with me. If the shoe fits, wear it.
Remember when Yogi Berra was asked, “What time is it?” He answered, “You mean, now?” God bless you, Yogi Berra, a true philosopher.
Yes, Now—! And what time is it now? For Eliot Church of Newton MA, it is the Kairos, meaning it is the right time for something big to happen.
Ripeness is all, saith the Bard, and I want to level with you and say that Eliot’s time has come to right-size itself. In order to cast a vision for Eliot’s future, which is the principal work of the transition period, a church must first take stock. A sober, fact-based reckoning has been publicly missing so far, perhaps because church members feared it would just paint a hopeless picture.
Think with me a moment about this great story from sacred scripture. It’s one of the favorites because it contains hope and it contains a sly joke.
Look back to where the Lord, in the guise of a visiting stranger, says to Abraham, “Before I come back in a year hence, you will have a son.” Abraham, the first patriarch of the Israelites, lived in mortal fear of his family being wiped out in the desert wilderness. Yahweh had been promising Abraham that his progeny would be numberless like the sands, and here was the Lord predicting these two nonagenarians would be parents again.
Now being something like 100, Abraham, and Sarah, age maybe 90, had long since come to the proverbial end of their family line. And so the Lord tells them that the line will continue, that Sarah and you will conceive a baby. Well, when Sarah overhears this conversation outside the tent, it makes her laugh out loud—she’s pretty clear about her being past any sexual pleasure and, besides, the old man is, well, OLD—point taken!
The Lord then said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
In other words, you did doubt me when you laughed.
Nothing proceeds in a straight line for the Israelite history (for instance, second-born Jacob supplants first-born Esau, Israelite slavery in Egypt is overturned by the youngest son Joseph who himself had been sold into slavery, corrupt monarchies follow, and the crooked, deviating line goes on, never in the straight way expected).
And this is exactly Paul’s point when it came to the arrival of the rabbi Jeshua, ben-Joseph, whom Paul called the Christ. Surprise, another jog in the line: Christians will be the new Israelites, Paul asserts. Paul contends that, once again, Israel will be reborn and continue its life of faith.
Well, Israel laughed in Paul’s face–that’s not in the reproductive cards, spiritually speaking, and certainly NOT in the way you envision it, Paul! This has been a bone of contention between Christians and Jews to this day. But, clearly, there was something to Paul’s claim that God had more in store for his people because here Christians are, 2000 years later one of the world-religions.
But some Christian churches are feeling their age. At 175 years of age, Eliot Church of Newton is feeling wizened, withered, and weathered, and members have privately wondered for 10-12 years now, as Sarah did, whether this church is fertile enough to produce another generation.
How explicitly can I put this—you have good reasons to doubt: Eliot Church is mortally over-extended and underpowered. (It is certainly not undercapitalized, but that paradoxically is actually one of Eliot’s problems—more about that another time.)
Look, we live in the desert wilderness of modern secularism, and a plague has descended on the land. But there is nothing so bleak about Eliot Church’s prospects that can’t be fixed with a cold hard look at the facts, just the facts, Ma’am. And there is nothing dire about Eliot Church’s prospects if approached with a good collective laugh, with Sarah by your side, resting in the divine promise which is right in your laps. Frankness about the facts will bring rebirth, new members and a new minister.
It’s time, it’s high time for leadership and members to have an open, public conversation with each other, with no pre-conceptions about outcomes. Just hear each other out, one by one and anticipate the divine wisdom that comes with discernment.
What I have observed so far is that Eliot is reckoning every week with a whole apparatus that is just out of proportion to the size and needs of its congregation. Think about this: do 60 members in a church justify a $400,000 budget? What story does that tell you—can you discern the entire story this tells, and implies? What has the story told you about the remedies that have been proposed over the last 10-12 years to increase membership and income? Many worthwhile endeavors have been tried, but to no avail.
So now it’s time to rewrite this story and exercise your only other option for renewal, alter our expenses to fit the reality. That’s what I mean by right-sizing the church. It’s time, and it’s the right time, my friends in Christ.
This is known in the New Testament as the Kairos—a decisive point in history. Maybe it means a jog out of the expected line.
How do you discern and honestly know when the Kairos is actually here? Because it gives you the sweats, it gives you the chills, it makes you want to run away, and tempts you to laugh it off, even as you realize the divinely fertile moment that this is. We believe in the living God here, and when God poses a demand, God confers an ability. Trust it. Will this congregation discern its Kairos moment? Discernment Committee, Leadership Council, leaders and followers, bystanders and stakeholders—let’s embrace our time’s challenges as a stimulus to stake our claim upon the future. We will get through this together.
It’s time to reorganize the staffing, rebuild the spiritual life, pull people out of the woodwork, all hands on deck. Time to give me an “Articulation Mob” so we can put up a banner thanking the health workers, so we can put green floodlights on the church pillars to keep the Climate Crisis front and center. Time to put the church on alert for changes in the social needs of our precincts, and be prepared to take concerted action as a church in service to the community.
Let’s summon the frank and open conversation necessary to fashion the publically oriented plan that will make our mission real and visible in the Post-Covid era. The main thing needed is trust in each other—that’s what you must bring to the table. We are here not just to get hope (although I pray you do), but to give hope to each other and our broadest community.
You have an identity, I can see it for myself—Eliot Church is an Owner-Operated, Total-Participation, Equal-Opportunity Gospel Mission Center!
That identity only needs you to give it some flesh and blood. I will pray for the Holy Spirit.
President Obama, in an online “Commencement” speech to graduates of high schools and colleges last week, gave a not-so-veiled swipe at the federal administration when he told the young people, “It’s up to you now, nobody else seems able to do it.” But, hey, what about us at Eliot and around the adult world—what about our role in rebuilding our communities? It’s also up to us.
We have our role to play—this should be a summer when we write that script. I invite you, I exhort each of you and the church collectively to see, to grasp and to accept the Kairos. You are entitled to your laugh first, but the Kairos moment for us has arrived, and we are stewards of that moment.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Answer me that.