The church as organism.
There are all kinds of seeds in the ground everywhere. Only some will sprout and grow and thrive in some places, and others in others. It depends on the “fit” between the needs of the seed and potential plant, on the one hand, and the available warmth, light and moisture in that particular place at that particular time.
So on the one hand, I look at weeds in the sidewalk and ask, “Why did this one grow here but not there, and that one grow there but not here?” And then a cool, rainy weekend comes and the neighboring field explodes with sprouts of some kind of plant, all the same kind, that I’ve never seen in that place before.
When I first joined a Lutheran church, 1980, at the time there were seventeeen Lutheran congregations within a one-mile radius of my own. This reflects the ethnicities of immigrant enclaves, and the state church traditions in the Europe from which those immigrants came. On the one hand, the Swedes saw no need to associate with the Germans, nor the Norwegians with the Danes. On a different hand, in contrast with the Methodists and Baptists who were often outlaw traditions in Europe, the state church Lutherans had no need to learn to express their faith in conversations, nor debate its worth: this faith was a given from birth, enforced by law, and the “orthodoxy” prevalent in those churches actually discouraged lay folk from engaging in conversations about faith.
In the decades since, some of the seventeen have closed; some have merged; some have reconstituted themselves with a completely different focus. I grieve to have recently learned that two more of the remaining ones, both at one time thriving African-American churches, have become moribund or “unfit” and destined to soon close.
They were unable to thrive in the current context.
Following Jesus tends to make anyone more “fit” to thrive and prosper in his or her own given context.
My own current congregation formed from a union of three previous congregations. Now our own future can be in doubt, because the community have been unable to sustain itself through its own offerings. We have survived materially thanks to a number of wholly unexpected, large bequests. But we have no intention of going into “survival mode.”
Whatever different perspectives there were among the previous three churches, and despite disagreements and personality conflicts among ourselves, the leadership has always been united on one thing: we are committed to community ministry. I envision that we may be like a freight train moving full speed toward a brick wall which may not be the best example, since in that scenario it’s certainly the wall, not the train, that would give way in any collision.
But we may be like that: intentionally going full speed until we may come to a quick end. And we’re fine with that. If we spend our very last dime doing ministry, that’s what we’ll do.
A former pastor told me that the life-spirit of a Lutheran congregation comes by and through Word and Sacrament. And we’re not by any means neglecting Word and Sacrament. Our orientation is merely what our life-spirit continues to tell us to do.