The unglued church


WWPS: What would Paul say?

Breaking our clay jars to discover the treasure

By Susan RothenbergSusan Rothenberg

 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us…So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  2 Cor. 4:7, 16

I have never owned a “WWJD” t-shirt or bracelet, but I often think about creating a “WWPS” merchandise line. In the Epistles, Paul provides deep wisdom for churches who are losing heart as they engage in the struggle of ministry in their time and context.

I often wonder, “What Would Paul Say?” to churches who struggle with membership, finance, or survival. He’d probably say something about the clay jars we hold onto in our congregations. What might he say about these clay jars that not only prevent our whole-hearted engagement with the treasure (the Gospel) but also keep us from reaching the people Jesus treasures and has called his church to serve?

Paul might suggest we break open some of our clay jars and release the treasure within.

The idea of intentionally breaking things might sound mildly heretical because Presbyterians historically have been really, really good at building things. Over centuries, we’ve not only built thousands of amazing and beautiful church buildings, but also schools, hospitals, seminaries, and colleges all over the world. We are really awesome at building, preserving, and endowing stuff. Then, we put a plaque on it.

Presbyterians are, however, completely feeble when it comes to breaking stuff. Paul might tell us we at least need to lighten up a little if we are to be sufficiently nimble to follow the Holy Spirit into the new thing God is up to in the PC(USA).

As an Unglued Church leader, I help congregations determine what they might be willing to break for sake of the Gospel. I ask them to think carefully about their ministries. What is sapping their energy and weighing down like a ballast in a ship? What is hampering their ability to joyfully serve Jesus Christ?

It’s easy for congregations to become attached to clay jars instead of the treasure inside. Some saints believe the building in which they worship is the treasure. Or the hymnals, the organ, the flowers, the offering plates, the pews, the filing cabinets filled with Sunday school curriculums, and the hundreds of plastic trays and wicker baskets that seem to fill every cabinet of every church kitchen I’ve ever visited.

Sometimes the clay jars are cherished traditions that are perpetuated year after year even though no one can remember their original purpose or meaning. It’s not surprising Presbyterians have come to value these things because they kept congregations humming along for a long time. In our Unglued Church process, we have discovered they are often among the things that keep churches feeling stuck and anxious.

Don’t get me wrong. Our stuff and traditions are not bad thing in themselves. We just become so attached to them. Sooooo attached.

Many congregations, both large and small, feel the crushing weight of so much of what we’ve built or inherited. Yet, like empty nesters facing the prospect of downsizing after 40 or 50 years of living in a sprawling family home, we have a tough time letting go of things which hold great meaning for us. In fact, we hope that our children might gratefully receive our 100 pieces of antique china, or the massive dining room table that seats 12, or the hand-carved heirloom furniture that once belonged to our great-grandmother.

Unlike previous generations, our children today are more often than not telling us, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and we feel like we’ve been stabbed in the heart. How can they so blithely reject the lovely things we worked so hard to preserve?

So, we keep polishing the silver and patching the clay jars, hoping the kids will change their minds at some point. Meanwhile, the kids are probably wishing we’d sell the silver and use the money to pay off their student loans. Bunch of ingrates, right?

I don’t think so. While it’s true the next generation of Jesus’ followers don’t seem interested in inheriting all of our clay jars, that doesn’t mean they are rejecting the treasure. The experiences of 1001 New Worshiping Communities and other innovative ministries in our denomination confirm that the next generation treasures the Gospel of Jesus Christ which seeks to transform a hurting world that is hurting harder every day.

We need to learn to let go of jars of our past so we may move more deeply into the heart of ministry itself, which is the mission of Jesus Christ. But, first we need to talk about what these things might be. This talk is happening at General Assembly in Portland this week, as The Way Forward Committee discerns what PCUSA structures and systems are hobbling our denomination’s proclamation of the Gospel.

Such conversations are hard, much harder than I ever imagined. The conversations feel like death to tired congregations. But, these faithful conversations are the first steps on the road to resurrection and new life for tired and stuck churches. I, and others in the Unglued Church project, feel privileged to accompany God’s people in the sorting out and letting go, always offering encouragement so they will not lose heart as their inner nature is renewed day by day.

What needs to be broken open in your congregation, or even in your own life, so that the power of God — the Creator and Giver of New Life — may be released?

Susan Rothenberg is an at-large teaching elder in Pittsburgh Presbytery. She has served as pastor to a small church and currently serves on the presbytery’s COM as well as in leadership of The Unglued Church Project. She is married and has two amazing kids. See her personal blog, Lost in Wonder, Yet Paying Attention