The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?” (Simone Weil)
At a recent clergy gathering here in Wisconsin, Steve Sterner, Executive Minister of the UCC’s Local Church Ministries Division, told a story about the Christian church before Constantine. Historians studied this period and found 3 points when the church experienced growth. Each spurt occurred during a plague. They discovered that many people migrated away from plague-ridden areas, but those who stayed rooted in their communities were typically Christians who cared for the sick. As Christians cared for the dying, those who lived were converted to their movement, and their numbers proliferated.
What does this tell us in a time when we are plagued with cultural change and the erosion of commitment to church life? On a practical level, it might say that, rather than moving our congregations when the going gets tough in the neighborhood, we should stay rooted and try to adapt to the changing needs of the community (I admit I’ve interviewed a few congregations that really tried and failed to accomplish this).
On a discipleship level, it may simply indicate that true growth in the church can only come from our determined effort to live as compassionate people in the way of Christ, no matter where we find ourselves. Maybe we have to start walking the walk with more integrity, to be “full time Christians”.
Is it possible for Christians to more faithfully “walk the walk”, even in a time when our institutional churches are in decline? That’s the 64 dollar question. Not only do we need to keep being the Church somehow, in an atmosphere that seems hostile to church-as-we- know-it; but we also need to be the Church more faithfully than we have been in the past, with a greater focus on discipleship and authentic mission, and less attention given to how the silver is lined up in the church kitchen drawers, or whether Jesus’ body was transubstantiated or con-substantiated (don’t ask, I don’t really know what it means either).
When a church is hit by a plague that causes it to die, we need to ask ourselves: how will Christ survive in this place? Will it just be a bundle of cash handed to the local non-profit agency? Will it be a pretty building converted into an antique store? Or a disparate collection of nice people who all go their separate ways? Shouldn’t there be some kind of God leftover somewhere?
In ancient Rome, what was leftover when the plague hit was a few generous souls who cared for the sick in Christ’s name. What will it be for us?