Unglued church

Walking the walk

Staying faithful in the face of challengesmark roth

By Mark Roth

Recently, I’ve had the chance to meet with the leaders of several congregations.

I have brought with me one simple question: What most excites you or challenges you about your church?

The answers have been amazing: diverse, honest and optimistic amid the fears.

As you might expect, some of the responses are more conventional than others. I hope we can get a new organ. I hope we won’t disappear.

But others are more thoughtful and surprisingly bold.

One leader, whose father was baptized into the congregation nearly 90 years ago, said “If we have to sell this building and move to another worship space, so be it. There are a lot of needs in our community and lots of things we can do” to further God’s kingdom.

At another church, the leaders talked about how their congregation used to be the country club church. The country club is now closed, the congregation has dwindled, and yet the leaders who are struggling with this decline feel more intimately tied to each other than ever before.  “I feel the people who are here now are totally committed to the church,” one elder said.

At another church in a changing city neighborhood, a longtime elder said she was present several years ago when “we had to decide if we were going to be an old, dying white church in a racially diverse neighborhood or move toward becoming an interracial congregation.”

The church leaders chose diversity. It cost them a pastor, but gained them a new kind of congregation, one that worships today with praise music and gospel clapping combined with traditional communion rites and creeds.

Of course, answers are just starting places in the journey along The Way. When the rich young man asked Jesus what he needed to inherit eternal life, he was glad to be able to tell the Master that he had followed the 10 commandments. But then Jesus said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Yes, walking the walk has always been harder than talking the talk.

The church leaders I’ve been meeting with know that already, And yet, their answers to my question do give all of us hope. Hope, Emily Dickinson wrote, “is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.”

It is what lifts all of us toward the first step on the journey.

Mark Roth is a retired journalist and freelancer who specializes in writing about health and science issues. He is a Ruling Elder at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and is vice-chair of Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry. He serves as an Adaptive Change Adviser for Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Unglued Church Project.