O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame. Psalm 25:2a
My Roundtable preaching group is in Austin discussing Brene Brown and shame this week. Not only is shame is a repeated issue in the Bible (Hannah’s infertility, Hagar’s abandonment, the woman at the well, Peter’s denial) but our pews are filled with people living in shame: the woman who is infertile, the family whose child is mentally ill, the parents whose child didn’t get into college, the man who was a victim of abuse. Church can be a circus of secret shame.
But one of the issues I often observe is that long time, faithful church people seem to carry shame about their congregations:
- “Our choir used to tour in Europe every summer but now we don’t even have a decent tenor.”
- “We used to have 300 children in the Sunday School but now we have less than ten.”
- “We used to have three pastors on staff and now we can only afford one.”
There is other shame, of course: the shame that befalls a congregation whose pastor has been charged with a crime, the shame some feel when their denomination takes a stand that is opposed to their own understanding of Scripture. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
As congregations decrease in size and budgets are smaller, are we embarrassed that our church is not what it used to be? Does it feel like we are not enough as a congregation? And what is enough?
My hunch is that when a congregation is a safe community for members to be vulnerable, it’s also a church that feels unashamed about who they are as a congregation. In other words, if we can be vulnerable with each other in the church, then we can more easily talk about the realities of Who We Are now:
- Yes, we are much smaller than we were 25 years ago.
- Yes, it’s true that we no longer take annual mission trips to Malawi.
- Yes, we have fewer children and our choir is smaller.
But if we are making a difference in our communities, if we are offering solid spiritual formation, if we are serving the poor and lonely in our community, then we will not care about numbers quite as much. We will not be ashamed of who we are as a church because we will be serving a clear and holy purpose as we are right now.
If our current ministry is ineffective, we will naturally focus on our golden past.
And in ineffective churches, there are actually some good reasons to feel a little shame:
- When our church only serves our own.
- When we wring our hands over meaningless decisions.
- When we speak to each other with sarcasm and harshness.
- When we grab power (such as it is, in the church: “But I always chair that committee.“)
- When we blame each other – especially the pastor – for our plight.
- When we bicker.
- When we trust no one, especially our leaders.
- When we say we are “friendly” but ignore guests and strangers.
There are very faithful small churches. There are exceptional congregations with no choir, no Sunday School, no children, and no FT pastor. We need not feel ashamed that we are no longer what we once were. By God’s grace, we can become something even better – unless we will not let go of the past.
Image of warholized Brene Brown.