It happened a little over a year ago. Suddenly, there was a dead church. It socially collapsed, right there, at the end of my street.
Oh, the schadenfreude from my popcorn-covered corner booth. It was like the tooth fairy met Krampus to create high holy days with chocolate sprinkles. No more super troupers pointed at passersby to create heavenly glows or bouncy houses emitting squeals that test the human hearing range. And best of all, no outdoor motion picture festivals on a 75-foot screen of what can really only be described as serial snuff films.
And yet, the six-acre corner lot felt empty and dark. Frankly, just how I like it. But I wanted to know why. My gossip thirst was embarrassingly uncontrollable, I went hunting everywhere for information about why this colony had collapsed; and why it apparently happened so quickly. And they wouldn’t talk: the local newspaper was useless, and eavesdropping didn’t help.
Ultimately, I had to haunt the produce section of the grocery store for hours at a time, so I could stalk, er support, gullible, er friendly congregants to get information.
*Introductory Babble and Disingenuous Pleasantries* Then…
Manny: What a shame it closed?
Congregant: Well, it was bound to happen. You know…with everything…
Manny (now obviously salivating): Oh no, I hadn’t heard that anything was wrong *leading facial expression of sympathy with smiling concern*
Congregant: Yes, well it’s over… it was good to see you.
Manny: Oh of course… Bye, you too *showing tremendous restraint from showering a glut of curses*
For weeks, I got nothing but dead air from them, so much for showing some neighborly concern. Meanwhile the church building was kept locked down and boarded after the hurricanes. Then it occurred to me: this was their damned version of some circle challenge. I needed to say something that conveyed trust, interest and commonality, not just sympathy and concern. So back to the produce section- and there she was, the congregation secretary no less.
*Introductory Babble and Disingenuous Pleasantries* Then…
Manny: Hey Amy Ray (not her real name)…how are y’all doing? Have a you found a new church yet? *leading facial expression of sympathy with smiling concern*
Secretary: Not yet. It ‘s just gonna take some time to get through all of this. *suspicious disdain*
Manny: Oh of course… but we know the Spirit will heal the hurt.
Then came the bursts of data, incomplete bursts to be sure; but enough to figure things out. What I learned to my disappointment was that it wasn’t the usual suspects of inappropriate leadership or financial scandal. As the clues came in, it started to look like stagnation was the underlying problem. Different congregants mentioned different things: there was nothing new going on, there were arguments of political stances, there was a resistance to change and there was complaining- passive aggressive complaining. They spoke like American culture was some kind of moving target- an enemy of sorts constantly pressing against their values.
But what really seemed to have happened is that the passive-aggression bankrupted their emotional resources. It brought stagnation into their life and faith. It created such an inward-looking organizational obsession, that the congregation withdrew from maintaining itself. Quietly and steadily, the congregation chipped away at itself and the things it had built in the form of a living church. It stopped its newsletter because no one was interested in writing it. It stopped the coffee klatches because no one went. The church changed from be a place to go on Sunday to a place you had gone. It destroyed its joy.
And so, it died. And it was sad. (ok, it was saddish)
A few months later, the building re-opened under a new head pastor who wanted to build a new church. And they came in with disturbing titles like “Pastor for Assimilation”. So, I loaded up the metaphasic shield program around the house just in case. But despite the obstacles of closed congregation, they have been able to resurrect (no pun intended) themselves.
Curiosity got the better of me and I went to the church (well, churchish- back pew no snack). Despite the alarming titles and language, everyone was very nice. I expected no less. I saw The Stepford Wives. But the congregation was vibrant, engaging and welcoming. They were excited to be there, keeping community in their communion.
What the pastor accomplished was to focus the congregation on an external mission. He made church membership fulfilling again, deliberately inviting opportunities to fulfill that mission in community. (I know this because after being noticed at church, the grocery store conversations quickly move from radicchio to my relationship with Jesus; both of which are quite lovely in mixes but less-appetizing alone). The pastor has also focused his congregation on building rather than tearing down. I guess, because he’s seen the consequences of the latter.
I don’t know if the passive -aggressive kvetching has stopped. And I don’t know if the coffee klatches started again. But the film festival did, this time with films like Frozen, The Avengers, and The Incredibles. And, I regret to add, so did the bounce houses. But the super troupers, shining like the sun, have not returned: the universe remains eternally abundant with small mercies.
It is easy to have some conversations in common with them, especially with the arrival of a new season celebrating fertility and the promise of abundance. Success as a group is an unbalanced favoring of community over criticism. It is, of course, so easy to tear things down; it is harder to tear down with the intent of building. Or to simply defer social, emotional, and financial maintenance, until they fall apart. And then might sit there surprised wondering what happened.
Building takes effort. Even when things are not perfect, we cannot make them the enemy of our collective good. So I will take the lesson from my friends at their church about criticism, passive-aggression, building community and honoring vision. And remain reminded that the festival I may visit, the coven I cherish, the artist I patronize and the author I read, can easily become what I visited, cherished, patronized and read because I didn’t do my part in the building….because I looked inward instead of forward.
May your season of abundance be extravagant and bright (like super troupers).
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