by Emily Ralph Servant, Leadership Minister
He was one of my congregation’s “saints,” someone who had been attracted to the church decades ago because he heard that God was doing something there and he wanted to be a part of it.
I asked him about the old days and his eyes lit up as he told me about the boys’ and girls’ clubs, Summer Bible School, and a thriving Sunday School.
Those were the glory days of mission.
I’ve been thinking about this saint often during this past week as I talked with a number of pastors about mission in their context. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in remembering times past when our congregations had flourishing programs, our institutions were growing by leaps and bounds, and we were sending missionaries to the “ends of the earth.”
By comparison, many of our congregations now feel like Moses, hiding his face behind a veil so that the people of Israel couldn’t see that the glory of his encounter with God was fading (2 Corinthians 3:13). We feel discouraged, tired, and worried. We wish that we could think up the next great initiative that will draw hundreds—or at least dozens—of people through our church doors so that our faces will once again shine with God’s glory as our congregations come to life again.
Instead, when we remember the glory days, we feel like we’re dying. We feel like we have nothing to offer as our numbers are dwindling and our energy is waning.
Perhaps our memories of past mission have taken on a bit of a golden hue, however. Our stories have been shaped over the years of telling to remember the highlights instead of the everyday acts of love and friendship that drew others to a relationship with God and to participate in our communities.
When I asked people who had grown up in my congregation’s neighborhood about those same years of mission, their eyes lit up when they told me how this gentle man had walked the streets on Saturday mornings, sharing coffee and donuts with them in their homes. They remembered how he would sit with the teenagers as they smoked and drank on the church steps.
They didn’t just remember the programs; they remembered the people.
As the glory fades away, we are left only with ourselves and what a gift that is! It’s vulnerable to put ourselves out there and risk rejection, embarrassment, or hurt. It’s a lot messier and a whole lot more confusing. Yet you don’t have to form a committee to share a meal (or coffee and donuts!) and you don’t have to be young and energetic to shoot the breeze for a couple hours on a Saturday morning.
It can be scary to stop hiding behind the veil, to show who we really are. But the Spirit of the Lord is there, and where the Spirit is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). Freedom to stop trying so hard and just be ourselves. Freedom to risk building relationships with no strings attached. Freedom to trust that there may be some glory left after all.