The Problem in Too Many Churches

It breaks my heart to see a church that’s lost hope.

I’ve always loved churches. When I was a kid my family occasionally changed churches for opportunities in music ministry. When I became an organist (believe it or not) and then a choir director I would always use my weeks off in the summer to just pick churches that interested me and visit them. As a Pastor, now, I don’t get to do that as much on Sundays, but I still do it on vacation weeks and I and see even more churches while attending meetings and whatnot.

I’ve come to expect the same thing when I’m identified as a visitor: “Well, it used to be a lot better.”

Oh, yes, it sometimes sounds a bit different, maybe “These pews used to be full!” Or perhaps, “This place used to be bustling with children.” But the tone is the same, and I’ll bet anything that you can hear it in your head as you read these words.

Here’s the thing: that’s not Christian.

Our God is a God of hope! Yeah, there are setbacks every now and then, just ask the disciples gathered around the cross as Jesus died. But that very same moment taught us that the light of resurrection is always around the next corner.

So here’s what really bothers me about the “used to be a lot better” phrases: I’ve said them myself.

Hope Is More Complicated Than That

But before you lose hope yourself, let me share another experience, one I’ve had as a Pastor in those same churches in moments. I have been deeply inspired by older people especially, people in their 80s and 90s, who look forward to their death in the best possible way.

I’m not talking about people on their death beds who long for euthanasia… In fact, one person I’m thinking of in particular quickly followed that thought up with, “Of course, I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow! But won’t it be wonderful it does.”

These are living saints who’ve walked the way of Jesus more than twice as long as I’ve been alive— and I’m in my 40s. And the result of that walk is a level of holy confidence in that which they cannot see that I can only aspire to. Now for some of them, it’s a shallow “heaven when you die theology,” but while that theology may be a bit incomplete, their hope in it is very real.

Here’s another kicker: the individual who said to me, “Of course I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow?” In that same conversation, he hung his head in lack of hope for the church he loved.

Hope is complicated. And it’s often incomplete.

But It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way

One of my favorite churches I’ve visited (well I suppose they’re all my favorites but that’s another issue) was a tiny open country church called Mount Pleasant (I’ll name it to honor it as it’s since closed its doors.) It’s the church in the picture with this post. It’s worth pointing out that central Kansas is not just flat, it’s FLAT. So perhaps the name itself expresses hope of… a hill? :)

That tiny church had between four and six people on a Sunday depending on who might not be feeling well. Their patriarch taught an absolutely wonderful adult Sunday School class (100% of the church was in a small group!) and then they gave their pulpit to a rotating team of Lay Speakers as a form of mission, not only because they couldn’t possibly afford a preacher of their own but also because they wanted to provide the opportunity to those who felt called to the ministry. They were too elderly to go on mission trips, but they made commitments to give money to missions and they fulfilled them.

One time, only one time, the patriarch of that church told me a story of when the pews were full. But his head wasn’t hung low, it was held high with a smile on his face as he remembered. He ended like this, “Of course there aren’t as many people here anymore, but we do pretty well,” nodding contentedly at what God was doing in their midst.

Hope Matters Deeply

Can you see the big difference between the hope in those two individuals? One had tremendous hope in God’s promises for the future but had lost hope in the present— I hope my words as his Pastor were able to help him as surely as his confidence blessed me. The other, at Mount Pleasant, had hope not only in the future but also in what God was doing here and now.

I’m normally not one to proof text, to quote only a single verse from the Bible without context, but in this case, I think it stands:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…
- Revelation 21:1a CEB

How often do we put our faith in the former but neglect the latter! The new thing that God is doing is not just in the life to come but here and now! Jesus wasn’t just resurrected into some heavenly body, but a physical one, tied to this earth, proving God’s PERSONAL investment in the newness emerging all around us!

If we hope only in the future but not in the present our hope is incomplete… our faith is incomplete… our love is incomplete.

Ultimate Hope, Practical Hope

I’ve found it helpful to draw a distinction between hope in the future and hope in the present. Drawing on the tradition of Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern” among others, I call hope in God’s final victory “ultimate hope.” Hope in the here and now, then, is “practical hope.”

Academics would rightly note that this is an artificial distinction— partial hope is incomplete hope, you can’t really have one without the other. ”Practical hope” and “ultimate hope” aren’t really “things” so much as parts of a whole. But I’ve found the distinction to be profoundly helpful in diagnosing the lopsided hope that surrounds us.

Much more to come. In the meantime I’ll echo Philippians 2:2 with a key word changed: may God make your hope complete.