What’s in Your Congregation’s Trophy Case?

“There is a case in the back of the history room,” the story goes, “filled with trophies won by the church’s youth basketball team and softball team. Most of these trophies are 40, 50 or 60 years old. Members are proud of them, especially of the softball team trophies, because many of the players sit in the pews on a Sunday morning.”

The story’s from an article in The Christian Century called “Dark Night of the Church” [subscription required], and the authors, Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson, are making a point that “dreams of fame and fortune die hard if they ever die at all” (to quote Frederick Buechner).

The trophy case is in Roger Owens’s church. (Owens, by the way, has written one of my favorite books on ministry and spiritual direction: Abba, Give Me A Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction.) The point is that almost every church has a similar trophy case, figuratively is not literally.

© Xavigm | Dreamstime.com - Vintage Trophy Photo“These trophies can be symbols of significance, prominence, market share, bulging membership and Sunday school rolls,” the authors say.

I’ve heard similar stories in many congregations. Stories of how the Sunday school classes were bursting with children. How the local community turned to the congregation for leadership in social justice work. How everyone looked forward to reading the minister’s column in the religion section of the town’s newspaper.

Those days are gone. Owens and Robinson liken this to what Saint John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul, only this is the Dark Night of the Church.

“Is God at work wrenching our alluring memories of social prominence and significance from our minds, ripping dreams of fame and fortune from our imaginations?” they ask.

Owens and Robinson say there are “three aspects of St. John’s response to the dark night are helpful to the church”:

  • this dark is not evil
  • in the midst of that obscurity, God is doing something
  • the dark night of the soul…leads us to discover who we truly are.

These responses require us to change our perspective.

First, even though it seems that “someone has pulled the rug out from under us, [that] everything has changed,” we needn’t rush to find an explanation.

Second, we need to detach ourselves from those trophies in the case. Dreams of fame and fortune are just that—dreams.

Third, we need “to abandon the idea that we are a means to an end.”

So our numbers are declining in membership and attendance. Don’t call in the church growth consultants. Just sit with it.

So we’re in jeopardy of losing our building or the ability to pay for the staff we currently have. Don’t shred the budget yet. Just sit with it.

So the arc of the universe bends toward justice but we haven’t see much movement lately. Don’t start circulating another petition or planning another march. Just sit with it.

Trouble is, we’re not very good at sitting with things. We want an explanation. Now. We want the budget fixed. Yesterday. And we want justice so badly it hurts. Really hurts.

So what will it take for us to just be in this dark night (which really isn’t dark at all, just a different kind of light)?

More on that in my next post.

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