Q. Where is God’s office located?
A. At the end of your rope.
In the years when I was doing a lot of work with congregations that were struggling I would sometimes say, joking but also serious, “Gosh, I feel bad for those mega-churches . . . so ‘successful’ they don’t need God, so ‘successful’ (at least for now) that God can’t get at ’em. But us, we of the diminished mainline, we’re in a great place . . . desperate . . . now God can get at us, now we really need God!”
As I said, I was partly joking, because the atmosphere was often grim. But actually totally serious. Because, yes, God’s office is located at the end of our rope. When all the ways we’ve learned or been told to try to save ourselves no longer work, then the God who is God can find us.
I’ve recently read Andrew Root’s new book, Churches and the Crisis of Decline. It is a fascinating multi-layered book. One of the layers is the story of one such church facing decline, Saint John the Baptist. Most churches faced with decline construe their problem as one of resources, relevance and survival. We need more members, more money, more programs, more ideas, more techniques, more relevance if we’re going to survive. Understandable, but wrong.
Into the tiny band of Saint John the Baptist Church comes “Woz,” a young man who has had problems with drugs, excels at “Trivial Pursuits,” and who is pretty much at loose ends. As his grandmother, Jean, was living with/ dying of cancer, Woz moved in with her to help out. Woz and Jean helped each other. Helping his grandmother gave Woz’s life a purpose. Jean gave Woz “three pearls of wisdom.” “Take care of your teeth. Save some money. Find God.”
After Jean’s death, Woz went to Saint John the Baptist, Jean’s church. At the church’s Wednesday night Bible Study group, he explained what his grandma told him, her three pearls of wisdom. He has an appointment with the dentist and he has a friend was helping him figure out how to save some money. Now he needed to “find God.”
Meanwhile, in the internal life of the church, a debate was going on. One faction said, “We need to fill our pastoral vacancy as soon as possible or we will die.” The other faction argued, “Follow the money, the hand-writing is on the wall, we are dying, new pastor or not.”
Woz showed up at the church’s bible study saying, “I figured you guys would know how to help me find God.” It was telling that such a request — of a church — would seem weird and cause the church folks to go “deer in the headlights.” The members of the Bible Study group look at one another anxiously. Finally, one of them asked, “Do we?” “Do we know how to find God?”
The question hung in the air. Woz’s ask and the group’s “Do we?” re-oriented Saint John the Baptist Church from a desperate search for more members, money and relevance to a different focus — helping Jean’s grandson “find God.” Both the church and Woz were at the end of their rope. Together, by fits and starts, with unexpected discoveries and amid shared loss, God found them.
In the process, they started worrying less about resources, about being a dying church and how to save themselves. Instead, they started living. Their focus is “finding God,” which turns out to be more a matter of being found by God. In the process Saint John the Baptist made a subtle but crucial turn. The church was no longer “the star of its own story.” It was no longer about them. It’s about God, the God revealed in the cross.
So many churches in the U.S. are facing “the crisis of decline.” A recent NYT column reported that between 600 and 1000 churches in the U.S. are closing each year. Many frame the issue they face as one of getting and having more resources in order to survive. But when we’re at the end of our rope, there’s a reason we’re there; to discover, to die to the belief that we are “the star of our own story,” i.e. that it’s all about us, and turn to a power other/greater than our own. To let God be God for us.
Step One: We came to believe we were powerless over ______ (in this case, paralyzing anxiety and our fear of death). Step Two: we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. (further steps/ instructions to follow)
Where is God’s office located? At the end of our rope.