Saturday, September 17, 2005

Bandaged Paws

Last week SpookyRach posted about Smokey the Bear. I grew up with Smokey smiling benignly down at me from various campground billboards, solemnly reminding me that only I could prevent forest fires.

But I haven't seen him around much lately. As I understand it, the big push to prevent forest fires at all costs and to ruthlessly suppress any that did break out turned out to be a mistake. It turned out that fire is actually part of the natural life cycle of a forest ecosystem--clearing out what is dead, nourishing the soil with ashes, clearing areas for new growth. Apparently Smokey's initiative to prevent forest fires actually messed with the forest ecosystem big time, eventually leading to widespread tree blight of various types and to truly catastrophic burns.

I think we may have made a similar mistake in our thinking about church vitality and viability. For many years, we seem to have taken a Smokey Bear approach. We thought that congregational decline and death was the worst possible thing that could happen--something to be avoided at all costs. So much money, energy, reasearch, etc. went into figuring out how to turn around congregations that appeared to be dying. There have been some small and a very few spectacular successes. But mostly we seem to have paved the way for an awful lot of despairing church members who believed Smokey and now think they could have prevented the decline of their churches if only they had more vigilent. And some experts think we are now facing a tsunami of church closures in the next 20 years.

But what if death is part of the natural life cycle of congregations --being the human organisms that they are? What if congregational deaths are part of what keeps the whole body of Christ healthy--clearing out what is dying, nourishing the church ecosystem with their legacies, clearing the way for new seeds to find good soil for growth. What if, in our emphasis on "saving" every dying church, we've messed with the ecclesiastical ecosystem and made ourselves sick? What if, instead of proclaiming that every congregation must survive and thrive, we let the natural cycle take its course--allowing congregations to live and to die at the acceptable time. Would more death bring more new life?


cheesehead said...

Amen, sister.

I don't know if that'll preach, but it makes perfect sense to me!

Kathryn said...

I'm trying to preach today on Ezekiel 34 (Evensong...oh dear) on the "curse of interesting times"...the way that we tend to assume the worst if things get bumpy and the hope that losing control of the situation could just be the making of us. Which is slightly different, but definitely related, in my book. It feels like a really good and helpful insight.

Marie said...

Couldn't agree more. What a great connection. I think we focus WAY too much on numbers, to the detriment of all else. We also tend to see someone leaving our church for another as a failure, rather than sending them on their way with a blessing, knowing that we were the right place for them for a season and that it can be perfectly rightful for them to make a different choice for a different season.

Sue said...

Amen. This makes a lot of sense. Thanks.

Gord said...

Agreed. Sometimes organizations are already dead but just haven't bothered to lie down yet. What always amazes me is that despite our loud proclamations that we are a resurrection people, that we need not fear death, we continue to act as if it were the worst possible outcome. How does resurrection happen if we refust to allow the death first?

reverendmother said...

Living, dying and rising--it's the pattern of Christ's life and ministry, and we do well to follow suit.

I really do think you've got a book in there!

Quotidian Grace said...

Great post, you got me to thinking about how the same principles can be applied to ministry within the church organization. Sometimes programs or traditions in an individual church also need to die to make room for something new that can bring revitalization to the church.

Also, sometimes the departure of a long-time staff member allows people to look at that position in new and fresh ways.

What Now? said...

What an interesting post; thanks. I was thinking along similar lines to Marie's comment, that sometimes it's okay and right for church members to find another parish without that being about failure on anyone's part.

SpookyRach said...

Thanks for the link!

This is such a wise post. I agree with Gord - we say we are resurrection people, but fear the death of any of our institutions and practices. It doesn't make a lot of sense.