Breanna Illéné, Wisconsin Annual Conference
“The Church is dying.” “Young people are spiritual but not religious.” “We don’t have money for that.” These are phrases that sprinkle my life as a young pastor in The United Methodist Church. Ever since I have been leading in the Church, I have heard about how it’s changing and not for the better. I hear stories of the glory days and longing to just return to them.
I grew up in a healthy church that had a large Sunday school and youth group. Though many of my classmates joined the ranks of the “spiritual but not religious” after confirmation day, I stuck around, teaching Sunday school, working at a Bible camp, and sitting on various committees. I even contemplated seminary and full-time ministry. I eventually decided that I didn’t want to be a pastor, because I thought it was a job that involved “sitting an office all day,” and I wanted to be out helping people.
As I entered college, I began to feel a disconnect. I understood the Church as a powerful force in our communities and faith as something that should affect daily life, yet I didn’t see much happening among me and my fellow Christians beyond showing up on Sunday, reading our Bibles, and trying to be a “good person.” I began to grow disenchanted with the Church as I realized that the faith I heard most often preached (from both the pulpit and the Christians near me) didn’t actually seem to call me to anything beyond being a good consumer of American culture.
Thankfully, after graduating college and moving to Chicago, I wandered into a neighborhood church that saw action and social justice as integral components of a robust faith life. Soon I was working in the church soup kitchen, leading youth groups in mission trips to the city, and helping to run an afterschool program that the church hosted for neighborhood children. We prayed in the streets and with our neighbors, we worshiped, and we worked. I finally saw connection between the radical Jesus I read about in the Bible and my everyday faith.
This church had once boasted one thousand members and now had around seventy. One might say it was a dying church. Though it struggled financially, the people who remained were faithful and sometimes did the work of what still seemed like one thousand people. Church wasn’t only what happened on Sunday morning, but what happened throughout the week as the building was used for mission and ministry.
That little church taught me about being a disciple. It was where I once again fell in love with Jesus. It was where I struggled with questions and met people who challenged me to put my faith into action.
Fast forward over ten years, and I am now a pastor who is still asking questions. Though I work for a church, I often spend time meeting with people who are doing ministry on the margins and many people who don’t go to church at all. One of the things I have discovered—from my experience in Chicago until now—is that the Church isn’t dying; it is changing.
For many years, “Church” is what you did on Sunday and maybe Wednesday if you were really dedicated. Most activities took place within a specialized building except for an occasional mission project that served the community.
I am learning that “Church” happens many different ways. “Church” might happen over beers with young adults as we struggle with questions of racism, our faith, and our lives. “Church” happens as the building becomes a bustling food pantry, a place for hungry people to receive a warm meal, or for backpacks of food to be packed to feel school kids over the weekend. “Church” happens with prayer and caring conversation at the local coffee shop. “Church” happens with spoken word, guitar music, and paintings that glorify God. “Church” sometimes happens though Facebook conversations about God moving in our lives.
I feel a bit like Haggai speaking to his community. As he calls people to rebuild the Temple, he listens to people harken back to the temple “in its former glory” (Haggai 2:3). This is a common refrain I hear today in the church. Our response to these memories of “former glory” is to try to rebuild our churches exactly as they were years ago. We want to do youth group the way we experienced it as kids, we need to host our forty-seventh annual spring dinner, and we wish worship services looked and sounded the way they used to look and sound.
Then we are disappointed when our attempts are unsuccessful. We forget that what helped our churches be thriving, vibrant spaces was that they responded to the needs of their community at a certain time in a certain place. Culture has shifted. The way people experience the world has shifted. People’s needs have shifted. Doing things the way we’ve always done them no longer works.
When we look at the words of Haggai, we realize that he was calling the people to rebuild the “Lord’s house” (Haggai 1:2). They were in the process of rebuilding the entire community, and they focused first on their own “paneled houses, while [God’s] house [lay] in ruins” (v. 4). Haggai calls them to focus, not on their individual homes and businesses, but instead on God’s house.
Haggai’s purpose in calling the people together wasn’t so much that God needed a place to live, but that the people needed to remember what was important and should be at the center of their lives. He was reminding them that coming together as a community to worship and serve God should be at the center of everything they did. He called them out of focusing on their individual needs to focus, instead, on the work they were called to do together.
I think that in today’s church we are like the people Haggai was speaking to. We have forgotten to keep God at the center of our lives. We’ve become so discouraged in a mind-set of scarcity—there never seems to be enough—and so mired in trying to rebuild our individual churches to their former glory that we’ve forgotten the purpose of these spaces. We’ve focused on trying to rebuild buildings and programs rather than trying to build spaces to worship and serve God.
Instead of focusing on the past or even the present, Haggai calls the people to a future vision where the “latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former” (2:9). We need to refocus our attention on listening to the needs of our communities and building space for God to move within them.
Stepping into change is scary. We are comfortable with the way things have been done in the past. We know what to do, how things will unfold, and we know what the end result should look like. It is comfortable to remain where we are now. Yet when we remain stagnant and seek to maintain control, we are not acting on faith. Haggai tells God’s people to “take courage” (2:4). We must be courageous and step out in faith, trusting that even though the future is unknown, God’s “spirit abides among us” (v. 5). God’s Spirit will guide us in the way to rebuild God’s temple.
We are invited to look around our communities and see where God’s Spirit is already moving. I think of a time I sat in a room with several hundred young adult entrepreneurs in my community who were a part of a local co-working space. We took a moment for “mindfulness” where we were all invited to take a moment to think of something we were grateful for. After several minutes of silence, we were invited to offer that up silently. As I walked away from that space, I realized that I had just prayed with all of these people. I begin to ask, what does it look like for the church to begin cultivating these spaces of “mindfulness” within our communities? What does it look like for the church to open its doors and create spaces for people to gather? To share the rich Christian traditions of contemplative prayer and gratitude with a community that is seeking silence and depth in a frenzied, noisy world? Is that not helping to build the temple of God?
I think of the times our church opens its doors to a local LGBTQ youth theater group. Though they aren’t your typical high school youth group, these youth gather each week to share their stories and write theater pieces that are performed for the community each spring. Church members show up with snacks and open the building with acts of hospitality. As they practice under the stained glass window of Jesus in the sanctuary, or we sit around beforehand eating snacks, conversations emerge. Who is that guy in the window? What is the meaning of life? We wrestle with deep questions of identity each week in the church basement. Is that not helping to build the temple of God?
I think of the hours I spend texting on my phone or in front of my computer, having conversations with church members, people in the community, and friends of friends. My millennial habits of being constantly connected invite people into conversation in new ways. An afternoon in my office consists of theological conversations with a leader via text, the sharing of a news story about faith and current issues that causes a unchurched contact to ask about visiting my congregation, and sharing a funny story about Bibles on my Facebook page that leads to a church member asking about which translation of the Bible to use. Is this not helping to build the temple of God?
God’s Spirit is already moving among us. As God’s people, we are invited to step out in faith and join in to this space. When I think of Haggai and the community he spoke to, I wonder if they avoided rebuilding the temple because they were scared. They knew that the new temple they built might not be as beautiful as the last one, it might not meet their expectations, it might not look how they planned. I wonder if perhaps they spent hours planning and meeting, talking about what could be, but never actually doing the work to build the temple.
We do this today. We sit around in meetings wondering, “What do young adults want from the church?” We do studies on our communities. We have meeting after meeting. Our fear holds us back, and so we continue to study, plan, and meet rather than take a step forward and begin to build.
We need to be courageous and have faith that God is with us. We may not know what the church will look like in ten or twenty or fifty years, but we need to trust that God’s Spirit moves among us and will guide us. We need to begin to rebuild. When we hear a need, we need to figure out how we can reach it. We need to listen to those in our neighborhoods and ask what skills and assets they have that they can put to use in this building project?
And we are going to mess up. We might not get things right the first time. But we also follow a God of grace and forgiveness who offers us a chance to try again. And so we step forth in faith asking, “Where is God calling me to build? Who is like the prophet Haggai pointing out the need within my community?” Do not be afraid. Know that God is with you and the future will be even better than we can imagine.