AUTHOR: Anna B. Olson
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, (134 pages).
"Giving up does not have to mean locking the doors and going
home. If God is not finished, we are not either. There is more for us: more life, more hope. But we are freed from knowing the shape it will take. We are freed from the daunting task of birthing the new with only our own waning strength. We begin to face the future with freedom and faith rather than fear and the weight of failure. Giving up on success frees us. We are free to measure the fruits of our ministry not by the marks of longevity, affluence, and popularity but rather by the mark set by Jesus: love of God and neighbor."
I think Olson has a point here. As long as we are infatuated with the way the world define success, we will be distracted by numbers, by measurements made according to what we see with our eyes. We will be enslaved by such things. In contrast, rather than to be pessimistic about it all, about declining numbers and all the negative statistics, see it as an opportunity to exercise faith on the one hand and to re-orientate our perspectives on the other hand. Let God have the final say on when the end will be. She tells the story of St Mary's Episcopal Church in downtown Los Angeles, which was home to many Japanese immigrants at the turn of the 19th Century. A hundred years later, it has been reduced to a handful of worshipers. Changes of immigration patterns affect churches like this. Instead of bemoaning her present state, the people at St Mary's reflected on their history and learned about how it was a place of refuge for newcomers. She makes a distinction between "resurrection" and "revival or resuscitation." The latter is all about Church growth while the former means embracing a sure and certain death. In other words, if one does not die, how can there be resurrection? She writes:
"Resurrection brings the discovery that what we thought was most important and most recognizable in that which is gone was, in fact, not it at all. In the breaking of the bread, in the cooking of breakfast, in showing one another our wounds, in a word spoken to the beloved, we discover what was essential and of God and un-killable in the one who has died."Ultimately, the Church belongs to God and we should not do the worrying on God's behalf. If we think God is powerful, let God's people live it! If we think God is in control, let God's people believe it! If we believe in the Resurrection of Christ, let God's people anticipate hope and resurrection of the people of God! Olson focuses us not on what we can do but on our dependence on God. We get up to serve and trust God, and let God decide where, when, and how the results look like. If we become like Peter, James, and John, distracted by the formalities and busyness of building shelters for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, we may be so caught up in doing things according to man's wisdom that we fail to keep in step with the Spirit to be still and be awed by God's Presence and Beauty. How do we get unstuck in our old ways of trying to save Church? Olson offers three suggestions. First, make room for the future by removing old stuff that no longer serve any purpose. From old-fashioned TVs to old-style film projectors; creche rooms of old Sunday School materials to boxes of old books; broken toys to worn out hymnals, we not only make room in the building, we are better able to discern what is needed and what is not. More importantly, it prepares the heart for change. We remember our past (but we also risk throwing away precious memos for the next generation). Second, we use it as a time to take stock of who we are and where we are actually going. Apart from looking back at the past, we look out for our neighbours, both young and old. We look up to God asking for clarity of direction. By looking back, we can understand how the previous building and ways of working are suitable for their time. By looking out, we update ourselves with the changing contexts. Olson observes her own Church neighbourhood of quiet streets, gardens, prayer places, and the presence of Koreatown. She learns to see how neighbours perceive her own Church once she was able to walk around the neighbourhood. Third, we look up to God and seek to find our new purpose, just as the Church of old had sought to fill the needs of their generations.
The second part of the book, "Get Up" shows us three ways in which even the declining church can do something neighbourly and helpful. One has to do with taking initiative to go to others instead of waiting for others to come to us. Just like Jesus who sent out the 70 in pairs on a door to door outreach, making pilgrimage is about learning respectful ways of reaching out. It involves stepping out of our buildings to go out to the neighbourhoods; to take transit where the public is; and to find way in which to come out of our comfort zones. It includes the discipline of studying by asking people questions; learning the history of the Church, the neighbourhood; and the environment we live in. Olson shares about her pilgrimages to Manzanar War Relocation Center, to Japan, Korea, El Salvador, and Mexico. We learn about her challenge for us to try new things and new ways. Just one or two will do. Cultivate the habit of saying yes to all kinds of opportunities.
Part Three pushes us further into the task of reaching out, to look "outside the tent." She shares about how St Mary's had gone beyond mere Church services to becoming a place where community garden committees meet, neighbourhood resources, and ways to be a part of the community. She admits that there is freedom in the dying church in the sense that they are willing to try everything, and anything. The most difficult chapter is perhaps "Expect Trespasses" where being open means vulnerable to incursions into Church privacy, thefts, damage to property, double bookings, and so on. We are challenged to make a choice between preserving our private world or expanding our public witness. Let love pave the way for all such decisions.
Being a part of a declining church is perhaps one of the stark realities of the Western Church. Many churches are not only becoming smaller, a lot are also closing down. The statistics are not pretty. In fact, the state of the Church is only to get worse as people become less interested in the traditional church, preferring something more hip-hop or modern looking. Plus, the younger generation do not seem to be interested in the religions, especially with the widespread disdain of anything institutional. That is why books like this will become more relatable as time goes on. Things must change, adapt, or die. Olson puts forth a practical path forward for us not to despair but to continue to do the best we can. We take stock of our present circumstances, to look at our history and to embrace whatever remains. At the same time, we can open up our premises and our hearts to accept the neighbourhood we are in. This may mean taking risks. It also means having to bear with the inconveniences that come along with being open. Yet, for a Church that is 'dying,' why try to preserve something that lesser people are using? Why not open up for the benefit of more people?
Let me offer two key thoughts about the book. First, I feel a little sad at the state of the Church. For the many churches that once brimmed with life and people, that are now declining and becoming increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of people, especially the younger generation, it makes me wonder when was the turning point. Was there warning signs way before? Or is this something in the natural progression of Church life? Maybe, the culture has changed too fast for the Church to adapt. Or is the Church too slow? Maybe, it is a combination of both. Incidentally, I remember some people I have met who had a tendency of de-emphasizing numbers even when their congregation numbers were declining. On the one hand, I understand their perspective of looking at different measurements from the world. Things like not becoming mesmerized by the worldly use of statistics and numbers but to focus more on the intangibles like faith, hope, and love. On the other hand, I have that strange feeling that such may be feeble attempts to avoid accountability. Yes, it is true that numbers are not to be the tell-all state of affairs, but they do fulfill a certain purpose. They give us a snapshot of things so that we can take the necessary action. Just like the use of a thermometer to tell us our temperature, a feverish high would mean taking the necessary medication or making a trip to the doctor to check. Numbers may not be the main thing but they give us helpful indications of what to do. In this manner, I believe that the key reason why numbers are important is accountability. Have we tried our best? Have we missed the boat? Do we want to miss another opportunity? It is with this in mind that this book presents itself very useful. It helps us learn from the story of St Mary's that it is never too late to change. Better late than never indeed.
Second, I feel challenged because there is a need to find something that works for both the Church and the larger community. The Church has become too comfortable for the most part, doing what they feel is most appropriate for themselves, without sufficient awareness of the needs of the neighbourhood. One needs to feel challenged enough to ask:
- How is my Church property contributing to the needs of the neighbourhood?
- How are the Church programs assisting the community around?
- What are the ways in which the Church can be more a part of the concerns?
- Have the Church done enough?
- How prepared is the Church to get out of their comfort zones?
Going to extremes will create more problems. A Church must be a community that decides together as one. No one person should try to go it alone. Maybe, being a part of the neighbourhood watch group can be a good start. The first task of a leader is to recognize the current state of their churches and to communicate the need to change honestly and passionately. This book would surely push you in this direction.
Mary Olson has ministered as Rector of St Mary's Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, California since 2011. This is her first book. You can read more about her and her passions at her blog.
Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.
This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.