|October 1, 2014 -- Episcopal Church of the Annunciation, Memphis|
Photo by the Rev. John Burruss, who takes good pictures even if he's in a bee keeping suit.
Usually I try to avoid posts that are about church itself, but I'm going to break my own rule for just one post. But with all of the noise about "the end of theological education as we know it" because of the crisis at General Theological Seminary (if you haven't heard about this, good for you!) and the fact that I've been in contact with dozens of my classmates over the last two weeks, I feel like I need to say something a little more pointedly church-oriented. So, if you're brave, keep reading. If you're smart, tune in next week.
There's a narrative about mainstream Protestant churches which claims that the churches are slowly dying. Churches are merging, or being closed down, and selling their buildings. Millennials are suspicious of institutions, the median age of church goers is older than ever, and more people than ever before don't affiliate with any religion at all. I understand that. But that's not what I'm actually hearing from my friends who are one or two years out of seminary.
A friend who graduated with me is starting an ecology initiative with the church's land that will eventually support ministry to sex-traffiked women in Memphis. This year, they had their first crop of honey, and are working on preparing the soil for planting a huge garden that will grow herbs for tea and herb rubs. The community took what had been a burden to them -- acres of land to keep -- and made it into an asset for good. Now they stand for something. The church had been shrinking, but it's growing now.
Another priest friend is starting a print shop with his church community in Kentucky that will teach printmaking skills to those in hallway houses and prison, and will be a place where those people can be employed until they can find other employment. This project is in its very beginning stages, but it's exciting to see it get put into motion.
Another friend moved to Texas, and is teaching American Civics classes in Spanish at his church, to help immigrants pass the citizenship test. That church is growing, too.
I heard story after story from friend after friend -- and even if people weren't working on entrepreneurial and self-sustaining projects, they told stories about neighborhoods coming back to life in Baltimore, of growing youth groups in South Carolina, of creating safe havens for the LGBT community in Arkansas, of dinner churches for young adults being established in Southern Maryland, of public and liturgical witness all over the country, of laundromat ministry in DC, and some really amazing outreach in bars and coffee shops.
We choose the stories we tell, and I choose these stories over the narrative of the decline and death of the church. When we allow these sort of creative ministries to happen, even if it means having priests who don't look or act like the parish priests of the past, or priests who are one foot in the secular world and one foot in the church world, we tell the story of our faith in a way that speaks to others. In the news the past few weeks, and from the older seminary alums I was working with in meetings this week, I heard the death and dying narrative repeatedly. But what others see as death and dying, I see as an opportunity to prune back the branches, and to allow new growth to flourish. Besides, it's already happening.