God’s Office

Do we know how to find God?

Anthony Robinson / 4.24.23

Q. Where is God’s office located?

A. At the end of our 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 finished Andrew Root’s new book, Churches and the Crisis of Decline. It is a fascinating multi-layered book. One of the layers being the story of one such church facing decline, Saint John the Baptist. Most churches faced with decline construe their problem as one of resources and survival. We need more members, more money, more programs, more ideas, more techniques 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 adrift in life. As his grandmother, Jean, was living with / dying of cancer, Woz moved in with Jean to help her out. As it turned out, Jean ended up being the one to help Woz. Caring for his grandmother gave Woz’s life a purpose. Along the way, Jean passed along to Woz her “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 former church. At the church’s Wednesday night Bible Study group, he explained what his grandma told him. He has an appointment with the dentist and he has a friend who is helping him save some money. Now he needs to “find God.” At the same time Woz began attending, in the internal life of the church there was a heated debate ensuing. One group believed, “We need to fill our pastoral vacancy as soon as possible or we will die.” The other group said, “Follow the money, the hand-writing is on the wall, we are dying, new pastor or not.”

Woz showed up with a simple expectation: “I figured you guys would know how to help me find God.” It’s telling that such a request would appear strange to this church, who are dumbstruck at how to respond. The members of the Bible Study group look at one another anxiously like deer caught in the headlights. Finally, one of them asks, “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-orient Saint John the Baptist Church from a desperate search for more members and more money, to a different focus — helping Jean’s grandson “find God.” Both the church and Woz are at the end of their rope. Together, by fits and starts, with unexpected discoveries and amid shared loss, God finds them.

In the process, they worry less about resources, about being a dying church and how to save themselves. Instead, they start 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 makes a subtle but crucial turn. The church is no longer “the star of its own story.” It’s not about them and what they do or do not have. 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 New York Times column reported that between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are closing each year, destined to be “repurposed as apartments, laundries, laser-tag arenas, or skate parks, or to simply be demolished.” I’ve found that so many churches on the cusp of closure frame the issue 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.

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