Take a Sabbatical, Church

I’ve been thinking that the church needs to go on vacation. Well, vacation probably isn’t the right word. Vacation implies leisure, and this elusive notion that our ultimate happiness is always just over the horizon if we could just do nothing for a while. No, I guess as a preacher, I should use a more biblical word like sabbatical.

Imagine if you would that every congregation in the U.S. simply locked up the doors to their buildings for a year. Maybe we could leave a sign on the door that says, “Thanks for seeking us out! If you want to find us, you’ll need to go back to your street or neighborhood or building and start asking some neighbors and friends about how and where they worship. God bless.”

So we’ll be on our own to worship in living rooms and public parks and soup kitchens and on hiking trails and by throwing block parties in the streets on Sunday mornings. Some of us will be quiet and meditative. Some will be dancing and partying. A lot of folks won’t even bother.

For a year each congregation gives up its name and that desire to beat out the Baptists down the street for new members. We’re no longer the First Church of the Correct Side of the Argument that Broke Out in 1880. We’ll just be the church. Your neighbor asks to come to your group and you say, “Great! Come to apartment 55B a little after lunch.” “But who are you? What is the name of the group?” And you get to say, “Well, for now, we are Christians.”

It’s not all going to be rose-colored windows though. There’s going to be a lot of upset people. All those plaques on the side of the building. How else will we honor and remember those who came before? All that money sunk into sound and video equipment, all the planning to ensure the most spit-polished performance on Sundays. What will we do when we lose the total control of our worship environment? All those organs and pianos and hymnals and non-portable drum kits? How will we express our love for God only with what we can carry with us? All those committee meetings to plan events. What will we do?

Don’t get me wrong, I love so much about churches as they are. The haunting minor key of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” piping through an organ on a dark, cold Christmas Eve night. Watching a choir of children, half too scared to sing, the other half happy to soak up as much spotlight as possible, sing to an aging congregation, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” The occasional moment in a church board meeting when they decide that instead of using that extra $1,000 to clean the pews, they’re going to send it to Cambodia to build a house for a homeless widow. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

But in this country where the barrage of commercial messages drive the same message deeper and deeper (what you have is not enough, you’ve got to go get our product!), we’re really good at forgetting what we’ve got. And what we’ve got as the church is a God who loves us extravagantly who is slow to anger and abounding in love, a risen Savior, God’s Holy Spirit (unfortunately stuck in a jar, buried under artificial flowers in the storage room in too many places), God’s calling to be something truly loving and different and remarkable, a fabulous collection of talented people each with their own calling to share their gift for God’s Kingdom, wealth and resources that would seem scandalous to a church worshipping on a dirt floor, and the freedom to do nearly anything we can imagine to pursue God’s kingdom in the world today.

Perhaps a year’s sabbatical is just what we need to remember the beauty of those gifts. Perhaps a year’s sabbatical could release the stifling air of inevitable decline in so many churches too scared to take a risk. Perhaps a year’s sabbatical would help us remember that we do not exist simply to trade members back and forth.  Maybe when we unlock the doors, take down that little sign and walk back into our sanctuaries, we will realize that God and God’s Moving Spirit were there all along. After a year, we may even be willing to move some ourselves.


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