By L. Gail Irwin
A couple years ago, I attended a judicatory meeting at which the theme was “Building a Bridge to the Future”. It was one of those meetings where a group of already exhausted clergy and lay leaders were given handouts describing trends and characteristics of post-modern, post-Christian culture and asked to contemplate what this all might mean for the future of the church. As we stared at our hand-outs, perplexed, I couldn’t help but thinking, “Why do we need a bridge to the future? The future is right here. The future is today. Or tomorrow, if you’re squeamish.” I don’t think anyone in the Church these days imagines that we have a clear hold on how to get to the future from here. Usually, the future comes to everyone else long before it gets to us.
But I am interested in the concept of being a bridge. The Church, in its best form, has always been a bridge between the human and the divine. It is the place where the Spirit guides people to transcend themselves and get closer to something bigger than they are, and bigger than past, present, or future. Namely, God.
In my first year as an ordained minister, the San Francisco Bay Bridge collapsed during the 1989 earthquake. I was mortified, having just moved from that area, and I spent hours watching the national news from my new parsonage in the Midwest. Etched in my mind was the image of the little red car that was left dangling from the open wound that had once been the upper deck of the bridge. How vulnerable it looked! After calling all my Bay Area friends to be sure none of them had ended up in the chilly bay, I assured myself that, despite the tragedy, life would go on.
But I was wrong, and I had missed the metaphor for ministry that would come to me later in my career: the ground was shaking beneath us, and we, like the little red car, were hanging precipitously from a cliff. All those deep theological truths I had armed myself with in seminary, all the creative worship ideas and curriculum packages I was assembling were becoming part of the wreckage of the institutional church we had built our faith practice on. Mainstream, middle class, progressive Christian America was shaking with cataclysmic cultural change, and our bridge to God was going to be permanently damaged, if not destroyed
Maybe on some unconscious level I had sensed this impending doom and had responded by fleeing California for the Midwest, where good folks still brought their children to Confirmation classes and took hot meals to their elderly neighbors. But even here, after a few years, I felt the rumblings of change. Families were more committed to high school wrestling than youth group. Middle aged women were taking sweat lodge retreats instead of organizing the church bazaar. New visitors came and dangled on the fringes of church life, refusing to join. The Mainline Church was no longer the respectable center of the community. The culture was moving on, seemingly leaving us behind.
My denominational leaders were too busy to help me, embroiled in a massive re-structure and grasping at the quickly depleting bequests that had kept them in the mission business for several decades. I felt like the little red car, dangling, trying to hold on to the bridge. And I suspected that some of my parishioners, looking out at the shrinking crowd on Sundays, were feeling the same.
I responded by teaching my people that the task of the church was to hunker down and resist the leanings of culture by creating an alternative world in which to dwell as Christians. I imagined us as a sort of neo-Amish society, clinging to our ancient, enduring truths in the face of tumultuous change. I preached against consumerism, overwork and other addictions, and promised the gospel and the model of the early church would be a panacea against the ravages of a shallow life of slavery to the secular culture of malls and computer games.
But while I preached this message, the world continued to change. It wasn’t until I accepted the call to a small, struggling urban church that the metaphor of bridges falling began to hit me. My new church had no savings, had shrunk in membership by fifty percent in eight years, and was emotionally damaged by an allegation of sexual misconduct on the part of a previous pastor. Many of its internal problems had surfaced just as they completed a large building expansion project, which was yet to be paid for. To complicate things, about a third of its members were gay and lesbian Christians, refugees from churches that were still thriving, even if they were rooted in oppressive theologies of exclusion. These members were so angry with the established Church that it was a miracle they were even showing up on Sundays.
After twenty years of ordained ministry, another bridge crumbled. This time it was the I-35 in Minneapolis. No earthquake or tornado caused this collapse. In fact, it occurred on a brilliant, blue summer day in July. Without any warning, a section of the bridge gave way as vehicles plunged into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring 145.
This time, it was the bridge itself that caused its own demise. Deep inside what looked to be a structure of colossal strength were tiny flaws–a slow, gradual weakening hidden even from the rigorous self-checking of its own civil engineers.
Do you sense a new metaphor coming? I did. I had begun to realize that the decay of the Mainline church, something that, by now, all my clergy friends were accustomed to talking about, was not merely about the changing culture. It was also about us: the flawed structure of our institutions. Instead of building churches defined by the imperative of the gospel, we had built organizations that were defined by our buildings and paid staff. We equated programming and bodies in the pews with success, regardless of whether they fostered the fruit of the Spirit. We ran our meetings like miniature corporate boards, with some clergy acting as CEO’s, while others were expected to “do the ministry” as employees of the laity. When evangelical churches grew, we blamed them for our problems. When the money got tight, and the pews began to empty, we started blaming each other and engaging in elaborate theological and polity battles, the way rats attack each other when denied food. Perhaps the biggest flaw was in our loss of evangelical purpose: churches became systems designed to fulfill the needs and desires of their members instead of the needs of the world, as interpreted by the teachings of Christ.
Several months after the I-35 Bridge collapsed, I went to see the damage. I was expecting to see an enormous pile of debris, the wreckage of the disaster. I wanted to see it, I admit. Maybe it is just human to be attracted to disaster scenes. It is the same impulse that sends me to visit small, dying churches, and wander around their “catacombs”, going down to the basement to peer in the doorways of rooms that were once filled with Sunday School children, to see the faded art supplies and broken toys strewn around. These rooms, if they are used at all, usually house the collection of cast off household items that are sold at the annual rummage sale, one of the few enduring traditions. I’m not sure why I go see these rooms. It is as if I still can’t believe the massive loss that has occurred in my lifetime, and I keep having to return to the scene of the disaster to take it in again.
Anyway, I went to visit the I-35 Bridge, and did not see what I expected to. The debris was all gone, and the river was flowing as surely as ever through the center of Minneapolis. I stood on the adjacent 10th Street Bridge and gazed at what turned out to be not a disaster site, but a construction site.
On either side of the river hung the severed arms of the original bridge. The footings on either shore were secure, it seemed, but there was still a wide gap between the appendages. There is nothing like the sight of an unfinished bridge or overpass to give me that feeling of vertigo, the sense that, at any moment, I may fall off the precipice. Yet here in this precarious place, I saw two teams of construction workers, one on either side of the river, toiling like a colony of ants. It was about 8:00 PM on a Friday night in May. The flood lights were just blinking on for the night, and these workers would probably be on the job several more hours before a new crew would come in for the graveyard shift. There was no interruption in the work of re-building.
Of course, they were rebuilding! At first, there had been a time of chaos, grief for the dead and healing for the injured. But in a world thriving on fast-paced travel, the debris had been swept away without delay, and the rebuilding had begun. I stared at those workers for a minute, crawling around on the open stubs. That’s who I want to be, I thought. Every day, they were doing the work necessary to extend the arms a little closer to each other until the day they would meet at the middle and the chasm would be breached. I imagined the exhilaration in the people of Minneapolis when they could venture out onto the new bridge, cast aside their fear of the deep, lay down their old grief and reclaim their connection to all parts of their city.
In that moment, I wanted to be like those workers. After 20 years of ordained ministry, the last ten of them spent grieving that my London Bridge was falling down, I was eager to be among the workers rebuilding the breach between the institutional church and the God who first called us to this venture. I knew the feeling of standing on the broken cliff of the old structure, and I had desperately watched good souls go plunging into the deep off its edge, because they didn’t realize the thing had really ceased to function. I felt it was my job as a church leader to stop people from falling into despair on their way into God’s presence. I wanted to enlist them instead in the rebuilding of a structure that more faithfully bridges that gaps we keep creating between ourselves and God.
So where to begin?
Some people want to be part of an exciting re-birth of the Church, to see new forms emerge, new believers attracted, new ministries begun. There is an impatience with tradition and old forms. They are restless for something new and want to abandon the past. Some days, I am among them.
Others are still standing at the gravesites of declining churches that are as beloved to them as family members. They are reluctant to let go of their aging buildings, child-less Sunday schools and dusty vestments. They have forgotten the Church is a bridge and made it into a museum. Some days, I grieve with them.
But some place between these poles is the leader who cleans up the debris of the old bridge so that a new one can be built. This is a more humble task. Congregations, and the Church as a whole, must learn how to let go of ministries that are no longer effective in leading people to lives of discipleship. We must learn to see beyond our own comfort zones, our sacred sites, our cozy friendships and our own funerals. We must learn that God gave the gift of the Church not just for us, but for our unchurched neighbors and grandchildren. We must foster the healthy grief that allows old forms of the church to die so the whole Church can experience resurrection.
Those who are ready to move forward must do so with respect for the legacy we have received from the past. We must not forget what the Church is for: it is not merely here to keep itself alive with appealing programming and charismatic leaders. The Church exists for the effective shaping of Christians for discipleship. Most disciples have been shaped by previous generations. The new Church needs the old Church. Indeed, they are the same Church, in the eyes of Christ.
This project is about Christians who stand among the wreckage of institutional churches that are no longer able to perform effective ministry. It is about the grief that accompanies a process of letting go when we see our churches become unrecognizable versions of what they once were. It is about facing death, closure or radical re-structure of ministries so that the new bridge built to engagement with the divine is functional for anyone who dares to make that journey.
In part, this project will tell stories about the tasks of grief nobody wants to face, which are a necessary component of the Christian faith experience. Jesus wept. So do we. We weep in the face of loss, because we believe in a gift God gave us: the Church Universal. It is real and full of meaning and we have attached ourselves to it with faith and affection. When churches face closure, it is as if a member of the family has died, or the home farm has been sold to a stranger.
How do the members of dying churches name their grief and move past it? How do they reckon with the implication that somehow, God doesn’t need their church’s ministry anymore? How do they support one another through the transition to death? How do pastors foster the grief process and care for themselves through it? What can judicatories do to assist and participate in the grief process, instead of staying at a clinical distance?
Secondly, this project addresses why our grief matters. It matters because, even as faithful people continue to attend and sustain declining churches, their souls may be dangerously close to falling off that bridge to the divine. These are the souls of the Church’s most committed and vulnerable members, yet they are spending themselves in anxiety over what will happen to their legacies when there is no life left to breathe into the churches they care for.
It matters because there are other souls out there, beyond the edge of the church parking lot, roaming in the mall on Sunday morning, sleeping in doorways Saturday night; souls who have stopped even trying to venture across our broken bridge, the one that someone once promised them would lead to salvation in Christ. These people deserve our attention and energy. Who are they? What kind of bridge does the historic Church need to build to reach out to them? And how can materials and spiritual gifts from our dying institutions be resurrected in the rebuilding?
The stories I am collecting are real stories about real people who love their churches as much as you love yours. These stories are meant to help you tell your own stories of loss and hope. They are told so that congregations feeling threatened by change can claim their historic purpose in building God’s realm, lift it up for God’s blessing and re-shaping, let go, and pass it on to others in faith that “the better country” will be pursued by those who follow us.