This blog post was guest-written by the Rev. Anne Vouga (MDiv ‘08). Anne is rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Louisville.
Sometimes it seems as if all that we clergy want to write and talk about is how to get hold of those precious “nones,” the growing number of people who might still believe in God, yet do not consider themselves members of any religious institution. I have joined in the hand-wringing like everyone else, but a distinct sense of déjà-vu usually calls me up short.
Way back in 1982, I raised my nose from my theology books and peered out at a foreign religious world that seemed to be collapsing in front of my eyes. I had come to France, full of youthful enthusiasm, to study, and then to serve, the descendants of the courageous Huguenots who had held firm in their faith through centuries of persecution. The Reformed Protestants were still widely recognized and admired in their secular country for their strong moral stance, for their work for justice and peace, for their care of the poor and the outcast… but strangely, their churches seemed to be dying, and icy gusts of hopelessness blew through the chinks in the church windows and swirled constantly around their heads during worship.
I can still picture those big French Reformed Church buildings, made of stones as stubborn and sturdy as their Huguenot builders, yet now slumped on their foundations and looking inward with vacant eyes. I can picture the empty balconies that framed the proud central pulpit looking down on a dozen or so elderly men and women who were huddled for warmth around a gas stove in the center aisle. The pastor didn’t bother to climb into the pulpit anymore; its tall canopy and high steps were too grand for the small number of worshippers huddled together in their winter coats and practical shoes. Birds made their nests in the balconies, and the paint on the walls was buckling and ripping open the plaster like old wrapping paper. The organ no longer worked, and so the elderly congregation sang the old Goudimel psalms unaccompanied—sad, like an old record that was playing on slow speed. The pastor stood with a smile pasted on his face in the midst of his flock, bravely proclaiming resurrection. At home, though, he spent his time wondering if it would help attendance if they moved the services to Fridays, before the weekends when busy French families found other occupations. And the pastor’s wife spent her time wondering if the government allocations for a fifth child would buy them a new stove for the manse’s drafty kitchen.
“How do these French pastors do it?” I wondered, remembering the full parking lots of program-sized American parishes back home. “Social justice and outreach work are nothing without faith and prayer and worship,” I opined. “Where did the French Reformed Church go wrong, to be dying like this? They must be doing something wrong,” I muttered, more and more desperately. Instinctively, in an attempt at self-preservation, I turned away from this dismal and disintegrating world, unwilling to stay on board a sinking ship when life and hope and love beckoned in the sunshine outside the church walls.
Having run from the struggling French church, here I am back home, a priest in my own country. My priesthood is proof that Jesus has a sense of humor and a never-ending stock of mercy. Thirty years after telling Jesus that a struggling church is not for me, I am the pastor looking up at cracked ceilings and negative budgets, doing the disheartening math of ever-declining attendance and ever-increasing age, wondering if it would help to move the services to Fridays, and serving in an American religious world that is quickly catching up to the one that I abandoned in France.
We come to church looking for life, do we not? There’s enough death and failure in our lives, already, without finding it at church, too. In church, we want happy music to lift our hearts, clever words to inspire us, sacraments that are filled with the Holy. We want a giving church, not a needy one; a life-giving church, not a dying one… and yet, and yet, we follow a Savior who brings life by dying:
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Jesus proclaims.
I don’t have the answers to our churches’ struggles. But I have learned something that I did not know as a twenty-two-year-old perfectionist. A faithful church will not say to those “nones:” “Give yourselves to us because we are successful.” It will say, “Give yourselves to us so that we can pour ourselves out into the hurting world.” A faithful church is going to ask us to love more than we can love; to hope in the face of hopelessness; and to believe that a Lord who is hanging on a cross will live again.