Last Sunday, I hopped in the car with two of my friends and drove one hundred miles to a church in a town west of Lincoln. It was one of those perfect weather days. My friends and I watched what we decided was a crop duster as it made low passes over the fields, and we marveled at the clear blue sky, and talked about how beautiful Nebraska is this time of year.
When we arrived at the church, we fell in love with the beautiful, old architecture. The carved wood, the light shining through the balcony windows, the way the back wall opened up accordion-style to allow for an overflow audience. On Sunday, the overflow doors were open just because, and the front door stood open, too. Someone had arrived early to make sure the church building stood wide open for all who might be passing by, looking for a place to rest their head, or to be encouraged, or to get a cup of hot coffee along with a hymn and a few words of hope.
Those few words of hope were my responsibility on this day. I’d been invited by the pastor to offer the sermon for the morning. It’s a big responsibility. Somehow, it seems more sacred than speaking in any other venue for any other event. I’ve spoken at other events, including TEDx, women’s retreats, couples’ retreats, and fund raising events, and I’ll be speaking at some pretty big events in the months ahead. But, somehow, moments like when I stepped up in front of those beautiful souls in that wide open sanctuary always seem just a smidge more special.
Being a pastor is hard work. I’m not a pastor, but I’m married to one, and I know it’s a special honor to be invited to the pulpit on any given Sunday; because the pastor has a huge responsibility. All of those people under his or her care. All of their stories, their hopes and dreams, their broken and restored hearts are like a pastor’s sacred trust. Oh, it would take a lot to undo all that a pastor pours into his or her congregation over the years, I get that. But, I also have a great deal of respect for the hard work, the sacrifice, the love that a good pastor has for his or her congregation.
All the research shows churches in America are declining. All of them. The big, mega-church, the small-town Baptist church, the non-denominational church with screens and lights and valet parking (do churches really have valet parking?). For a while, it seemed the evangelical church in America was immune, but even it seems to have a slow leak that can’t quite be identified. There are books and studies and theories and hypotheses about why this is happening and, just as I’m not a pastor, I’m also not a researcher. I don’t know the answers. I can’t even identify the problem.
I’m not too concerned with the decline of the small “c” church. Maybe I’m naive, but I honestly believe God is always on the move. While the church may be in decline, it seems The Church — the Body of Christ — continues to grow. Years ago, in the midst of a conversation with my son about something that was important to me at the time, my son said to me, without even looking up from what he was doing, “Pay attention.”
“What?” I asked him.
“You know,” he’d said, now looking up at me, “pay attention.” God is always up to something — always making old things new; making new wineskins for new wine. I want to be careful not to hold so tightly to what is, that I don’t make room for what God’s got up His sleeve. My patterns of thought, my understanding of the bible, my favorite hymns, my place at the table. None of these are beyond God’s reach when He decides to do something new.
I want my heart and hands wide open, like those church doors on Sunday, and like that accordion wall at the back of the sanctuary — open just because, and ready for the overflow.
Think about this. What is the one thing you’d have trouble giving up if God came to you today and asked you to hand it over? Could that one thing stand between you and God’s new thing? Could it be blocking the overflow of the Holy Spirit in your life?