By Joe LaGuardia
In Mark 10, a rich young man asked Jesus how to possess eternal life. Jesus told him to follow through on the Ten Commandments. The man was religious and had a routine. He served God and made charitable contributions to society. “But there is one thing you lack,” Jesus told him, “Sell all you have…”
The lesson is filled with irony. A rich man had lack, and the lack was the willingness to part with all of the things that got in God’s way. Being religious was not enough. Doing good works was not enough. The man was so busy consuming things that he thought eternal life was just another commodity to own. But eternal life is not a product; it is a gift to receive with an open and expectant heart.
The man did not understand Jesus’ command. How did he lack something? He owned everything–and the Bible says that he walked away from Jesus “grieved.” He failed to understand something St. Augustine learned long ago, that sometimes, “Our hands are so full of things, there is nowhere for God to put new blessings.”
I studied this portion of scripture at the same time that I have been reflecting on the role of grief in the lives of churches. This idea of church grief came out of a pastor’s retreat I attended in late September. Bill Wilson, director of the Center for Healthy Churches and facilitator of said retreat, mentioned that there was a consultant working with churches that emphasized grief in the lives of congregations. Pastors new to a congregation or pastors exiting one need to know how grief shapes community.
The notion is very simple: Churches grieve during transitions (both clergy transitions as well as ministerial ones), and churches do not instinctively know how to handle grief. There is little conversation about what hurts, and grief comes in the form of lament: Why do we not have the same amount of people in the pews as when the church was in the “Golden Age”? Why has the church lost so much cultural influence in society? Why are we losing entire generations–“Where are all of the young people?” These are questions born out of grief, not out of intentional strategic outreach.
They are symptomatic; but as all grief turns out to be, they can lead to greater opportunities rather than hindrances. Grief can be life-giving or a burden; it is all based on how we respond to it–and most churches do not respond appropriately.
Ministers who miss these emotional cues are ill-prepared to help churches transition into new, life-giving seasons of ministry and missions. Churches that get stuck on the past forget what God calls them to be in the future. Congregations turn insular, power struggles erupt, and conflict damages outreach.
“There is one thing you lack…” is not only a call for individuals, it is a challenge for churches to let go of the things that no longer work or sustain growth. Our congregations are so filled with baggage and programs of yesteryear there is no room–and no vision–for God to give the new blessings that propel churches into a new era of ministry.
Ministry is not going to look the same as it did decades ago. The church must now work from the margins of society, not the center of it; and it must advocate for an outward-focused mission that joins others on the margins rather than cozying up with people and politicians who wield power from the center. Centralized power exploits, discriminates, and sustains status quos at the expense of justice and liberation. The church stumbles when it forgets its place; it is not rich, and it lacks that posture of open hands and hearts in which we look to God for our strength.
We have become the church of Laodicea, not Philadelphia. We think we are rich, and we have pushed Jesus out of our churches because we are too full of our own pride. But Jesus stands at the door and knocks. Hope is not lost yet.
Pastors have to play two roles in the church these days: one is the role of visionary prophet who dreams new dreams and casts new visions. The other is to be a grief counselor that helps put old ways of doing things to rest, to purge us of baggage that takes too much attention or that fills time and hands. It is as Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Pastors must facilitate life and death. The only other alternative is to remain stagnate, to walk in perpetual grief.