2009 has been a momentous year for the Community of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. We are in the third year of a process of Transformation supported by our Synod and the Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission branch of the ELCA. Our year began with some dramatic property changes: the removing of the two large trees that stood in front of our building, which we both mourned and celebrated. This was part of living into the purpose statement we developed for our property: “To make clear that everyone is welcome and help everyone encounter God in this place.” With renewed openness and vision, we saw our property continue to transform over the year: a new sign, plans for landscaping redesign, our beautiful statue of Jesus teaching children done by Spokane Artist Ken Spiering, and a whole host of changes to the inside of our building. Whatever our neighbors may know or not know about us, it’s clear that things are changing at Bethlehem Lutheran.
In the spring we started to face the reality of our budget challenges. Though in the previous two years we’d received 49 new members and with it a ton of new energy for mission and ministry, our financial situation had not been keeping pace with that growth. Our leadership realized that our path was not sustainable, and that something major needed to change by Christmas of this year if we were going to “keep on keeping on” with the way we have been doing ministry. What that might be, none of us were sure, but in our conversations as a congregation we claimed our guiding principle “God shows the Way” and said we were ready for whatever God had in store for us.
And God did show the way, that very same week, when we were approached by Bethany Presbyterian about the possibility of sharing space with them for two years while they figured out where God was calling them to re-root after having to leave their building which is in the path of the North South Freeway plan. And the “negotiations” over the summer seemed blessed by God as well—and it seemed like a partnership that was meant to be. This fall we began the adjustments to our new partnership, which came to include Emmanuel Metropolitan Community Church as well, because as long time renters at Bethany, they too were homeless. We switched our worship time to 9am, gave over some space to be used for the offices of the other churches, and began to adjust to an increasingly active building (which we are also using to host many of the AA groups from Bethany as well.) We celebrated with a joint Reformation Day service, so large (over 275 people in attendance) that we held it in a tent on the lawn—something that wouldn’t have been possible before as the altar was placed right on the spot one of the trees had once been.
And yet, despite the newfound blessings and the energy of our partnerships and new ministries, our congregational life seems to be more and more difficult to maintain. The influx of money from our new partners is an amazing blessing, but still not what we need to pay for our ministry as we have come to structure it. We end this year with a budget forecast more in trouble than three years ago when we began this transformational journey. Our grant funding from our ministry partners is ending, and the economy has not helped us out at all. We’ve been trying to “do more with less” (at least since 1990, when our income was nearly identical to today) and haven’t found a way to be sustainable as we are. In addition to our financial concerns, volunteerism is down, hope seems to be fading, and our fear increasing. Many of us have begun to seriously wonder, will Bethlehem Lutheran still be around a year from now?
I have a renewed sense of hope and vision that God is up to something among us. And I believe that if we embrace it, it will be a blessing not just to us, but to so many--to other Lutherans, to other Christians, to people who are outside of churches, to God's world. The question before us is: Are we ready to boldly go where God is calling us? This is a question we each need to ask ourselves and that our community as a whole needs to be clear on. And its not a question that can be answered "Maybe" or "Let's see what happens"--we've tried that approach for three years as we've prepared for this journey, and the last few months have shown us what it looks like to say "yes" but mean "maybe". It's exhausting and counter productive--and leads us closer to having no choice but "no"--to not act is to act, to not choose is to choose. Now is the time to get going, to claim "Yes" or to claim "No" as individuals and as a community. And I truly believe that if we can claim "Yes" to embrace the difficult and uncertain future trusting only in God to bring us through, that God will bless our efforts beyond anything we can imagine.
I'm getting more and more glimpses of this every day as I see the people just outside waiting to see if we are serious before they jump in with both feet. It's like the question I heard somewhere about the way churches do "evangelism": "Why do we think people who aren't here yet will be more committed to this than we are?" The willingness to "go for it" and acting despite our fear will be contagious and I believe will release a well of creativity that has been kept just below the surface. Like the trees, the "way we've always done things" has become a sacred cow, an idol, and is are keeping us from having the freedom to do what we feel called to do. It’s time now to create some space for God to do a new thing among us.
Will people all of a sudden flock to our Sunday worship service because we rearranged the furniture (literally or figuratively)? Absolutely not. But are people interested in being a part of a faith community that is deeply rooted in the ancient faith that began with Jesus, but isn't so tied to old ways of doing things that it is afraid to act boldly and embody that faith today? Absolutely. I talk to people all the time in coffee shops and pubs that remember fondly the deep peace and the sense of God's presence they got from the liturgy in churches they used to be a part of, but have left faith communities who refused to actually embody the presence of God the liturgy is meant to bring into our experience. Communities that were more concerned with preserving and repeating what had been done before that it cost them the life of their community now and into the future. Instead of reinvigorating the "community" element, our congregations have invested an ever increasing amount of time and energy into keeping the "church" from crumbling around them. The "church" may live on, but without the vibrant "community" that is its soul. To use Bonhoeffer’s distinction, we’ve become Kirche (church structure/building) without its Gemeinde (church-community). And the call I hear over and over from people outside the church and from an increasing number of people inside the church (especially the under 35 crowd) is all about the Gemiende and we should build a Kirche that is able to create the space (physical and spiritual space) for that to happen.
I know that we are afraid to loose some of our dear members, especially those older ones who will experience "going for it" as pulling the rug out from under them. I am no longer afraid of this, I believe it will happen and it is part of the call of God for this community to change--and part of that change is saying goodbye to people we love who can't or aren't willing to join us on this journey. And that is a time for sadness, for mourning, and for caring for our brothers and sisters. But I want to encourage us to also remember that Bethlehem Lutheran is not "The Church". Let's remember the bigger picture, that God is blessing Spokane through over 15 ELCA churches--many of whom are struggling much as we are and would be blessed beyond measure to find Lutheran Christians committed to the liturgy as American Lutherans have done it for 75 years, who adore the stability of worship space and format that doesn't change, who are willing to give sacrificially to keep that way of being Lutheran Christians alive as long as possible. Perhaps that is the calling of other Lutheran communities--but I can't see that as our calling. And if you are feeling like Bethlehem is on a journey you don’t feel called to be a part of, let us mourn with you, and bless you on your journey to the places God is calling you.
God has blessed us with a moment where it is possible to embrace something totally new, to see if we can't be a part of figuring out what the Lutheran church will look like 30 years from now, to try to figure out how to honor our heritage and traditions in a way that deeply connects to the generations that will be part of God's mission when we are dead and gone, to do as generations before us have done for nearly 2000 years: pass along the faith of our fathers as a blessing to our children and our children's children. Will God be upset if some of our members moved to an ELCA church across town? Or to another Christian denomination? Will God be upset if we close down operations here and disperse our members and financial resources to profoundly bless the other things God is up to in Spokane and in the world? I can't see why he would be. I do think God will be upset if we are too afraid to loose what we have (even as it slips away from us) to embrace the gift God has laid before us.
I almost want to say to us, (quoting our Synod's Guiding Principles) "No Fear, Transformation!" but I don't think that's quite right. Because I don't want us to deny that we are afraid. I think we need to name our fears, to bring them to the light of day, to talk about them and support one another through them--but finally to not give into them. Let's not let our fears overpower us (this is the power of evil) but to trust so deeply in God to be with us in the midst of our fears, and to lead us from darkness into light. I say we look at our fear in a very Lutheran way, as "Law" and "Gospel". Let us allow our fear be the "law" that shows us finally that we can't rely on our own strength, but instead let the law (our fear) turn us to trust even more deeply in Christ--and the "Gospel" is again (and again, and again) that powerful reminder that God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has already done for us what we can never do for ourselves. We have spent the last three years re-rooting ourselves in scripture, in prayer, in community, in seeing what God is up to in the world, and in preparing to go into that future that God has in mind for this community. And God has given us everything we need to step boldly into that future--to not be afraid but trust that where he is calling us is where we are meant to be. And more and more that call for Bethlehem seems to be "Loosing our lives for Christ's sake, and for the sake of the Gospel" so that we can find life abundant.
As I see it, the decision before us is: Do we loose our life by spending the next year closing down and celebrating God's ministry through Bethlehem for 55 years? Or do we loose our life by being willing to risk the response to the call of God we have been hearing? I hope we are willing to embrace that loosing of our life by laying it all on the line for the possibility God is giving us glimpses of. But if we aren't, let's be clear on that too so that we can honor the gifts and ministries and history of this community, and can release the resources we have so that this bold transformation can happen somewhere else.
2010 will be a year of great Transformation for us, whichever path we choose. I believe God has called us to be the people to make this journey, and that now is the time he has given us to make it. It’s an adventure into the great unknown, but a leap of faith we can make confidently, knowing that God has been with his people through bigger challenges than this, and will be with us now. God shows the way, and calls us to follow. Ready?