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The Other Big Will

April 30, 2008

I really like reading Will Willimon’s blog.  (Is it okay to call him Will, or should I refer to him as Bishop?  I get the sense from his writings that he might prefer to be called by name). I tend to like his books as well.  In my biblical theology class we were required to read Resident Aliens and to engage its peculiar take on eschatology: that the end has already happened and the world as we once knew it is gone for good.  I found that to be a refreshing if challenging break from the Left Behind / dispensational theology of contemporary Christian culture (with which I disagree) and Johannine realized eschatology.  But I digress.

This morning Bishop Will really hit a home run.  As he reflected on the revitalization of older churches (a personal passion of mine), he dropped this bomb:

Warning: Dick Freeman, Thomas Muhumba, and Dale Cohen would have me add: No existing, older churches can be revitalized without risk, commitment, and a determination to be faithful to the mission of Christ no matter what.

If your church is in decline and not growing, it is because your congregation has decided to die rather than to live (alas, there is no in between when it comes to churches).

That last sentence just slays me.  It is prophetic and true.  It stirs up strongly mixed feelings.  I wanted to jump up and shout AMEN! and I wanted to squirm.

As a pastor my first instinct is to point out how that statement is easier to make from the Bishop’s position, or from academia.  It’s easier for a bishop or a professor to say that to a bunch of pastors than it is for a pastor to say to her dying congregation.

And yet, a pastor began the process of saving my home church by saying pretty much the same thing.  At a church council meeting Red Andricks said, “I wasn’t sent here to hold this church’s hand while you die.  If that’s all this church wants from me I will call the bishop and move on.”

Harsh, angry, prophetic words.  It reminds me of a sign that a counselor friend used to keep above her desk.  It read, “The truth will set you free.  But first it will PISS YOU OFF!”

(Truer words have never been spoken.  If you want to make someone angry tell lies about them, but if you want to make them REALLY angry tell the truth about them!)

And the church was not happy with Red’s words, primarily because they were true.  But Red’s leadership prompted serious growth in that church.  In a dying southern Illinois town that church grew from around 50 every Sunday to nearly 200 in a matter of a few years.  Maybe not the most stunning numbers to all of you, but when 200 is ten percent of the town’s population and too many jobs have moved away (and too many high school graduates follow), it’s absolutely astounding.  The church is not only a grown entity in terms of numbers but also in their religious commitment, community service and mission, spiritual growth, and priesthood of all believers.  They grew because they decided to do it right.

And because they decided not to die.

I wrestle with the Bishop’s words this morning because I need the spine to say them myself.  It is hard as an itinerant preacher who finds himself potentially serving congregations who decided to die 30 or 40 years ago.  But sometimes the doctor has to say, “this is going to hurt, but I have to do it before you can heal.”  Maybe pastors have to claim the prophetic voice that can say, “this truth is going to piss you off, but it’s going to set you free.”

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