By Robert G. Eaton
In that moment in time when a parish is in transition between a former rector and whomever will become the next ordained leader, just like St. George’s is now, lots of comments and questions and concerns arise that have to do with that congregation’s life and health in the Lord.
It should be obvious that the question of the health of a parish cannot be made simplistic. However, there are some very core intentional parts to the good health, even the liveliness, of a congregation.
What are those? Well, we’d better start at the beginning, right? The Easter season brings us such a strong focus on witnessing the risen Lord Jesus, and the sharing of that witness, which is what I’ve been bringing forward to you since Easter morning. It’s important to start right there.
Already we know this: the center of the Church’s existence is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For an authentic Christian community, everything we do and say will point to and rely upon this central great work of God.
If not, then no matter what we also do in the core actions, the church’s health will suffer. Witness and testimony to that universal event are critical.
Here is how I’m framing this question of health for this Third Sunday in Easter: What happens to church life without testimony and witnesses?
You can’t ask that question at all if the centerpiece of our faith, the core belief, which is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, hasn’t happened.
Christianity’s core belief is that the Son of God took on human form, died for our sins and then rose from the dead to give us eternal life. But if Jesus Christ didn’t come back to life, it undoes his claim to be the all-powerful, eternal Son of God, Savior and Messiah. So, Christianity hangs on the Resurrection.
It’s not about historical proofs of Jesus’ existence.
The fact is, we have far more sources for Jesus of Nazareth than we do for many historical figures in the first century. We have at least 18. Twelve of those are non-Christian sources.
There’s more evidence Jesus existed than Julius Caesar. Does Anyone doubt Caesar existed?
As for the Scriptures, Professor Darrell Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary explained that any piece of a surviving ancient work is called a manuscript. And more ancient pages or fragments of the Bible have survived by far than any other book from antiquity.
“It’s exceptional,” Bock said. “You’re talking about over 5,800 Greek manuscripts, over 8,000 Latin manuscripts. Most books that we work with in the ancient world have maybe at best a dozen manuscripts.”
And it’s not necessarily about trying to convince people that he rose from the dead. In the same way as the evidence of his earthly existence, the arguments against his resurrection don’t hold water to the false arguments, nor hold up to the amazing eyewitness accounts.
It’s about the eyewitnesses then, and it’s about the eyewitnesses now.
I believe this is why the Church has focused in its Easter teaching and preaching upon the eyewitnesses.
Like what happens with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They know the story. They were disciples. They had followed Jesus. In their life before Holy Week happened, they had the aural experience of hearing his voice, and the visual experience of seeing his face, his body, his walking. Perhaps they also had the sensation experience of his hand on them for healing. And they probably had watched him die on the cross, even if from afar.
But none of those things meant anything to their life as witnessing disciples until, on the road and sitting at meal with him, they saw the Lord Jesus risen from the dead with those very eyes of theirs, and heard his risen voice, and perhaps touched his risen arms. For God’s sake, and for ours, they took a walk with him. They ate with him.
And without question, in the middle of the night they went back to Jerusalem, found the other disciples, and gave their testimony: “We have seen the Lord, and he is alive.”
The Church renewal weekends called Faith Alive were built on this same concern about seeing the risen Lord Jesus and learning how to share that witness and testimony. You can’t just walk away from one of those weekends, getting people very high on their faith, and hope it will by osmosis change everything.
So, especially with congregations in transition, we can talk a lot about methods of how to expand the testimony, the ministry, the healthy group dynamics, the matters of leadership and followership, how the spiritual gifts would assist them in the growth of the church, the nature of exhortation (or preaching) as Peter provided on Pentecost, the nature of apologetics, how to teach and form new disciples, where and how to begin mission (as Jesus actually outlined for them before he ascended), the care and feeding of the burgeoning Christian community, what good stewardship looks like in order to fund the progress and spread of the Church , the essential nature of being empowered by the Holy Spirit, the center place of remembering Christ in the Eucharist, and even come to a consensus about whether we release balloons or a flock of doves on Pentecost as a joyful witness to the Holy Spirit’s descent, becoming the promised replacement for the risen Jesus.
And all these things become important in the life and growth of the Church’s witness to the world.
But the beginning of all those matters of expansion and deepening and forming and empowering will be and have to be the witness of the risen Lord, and to keep bringing those eyewitness accounts forward.
Here is the crux. Without testimonies of people seeing Christ in their life right now, and in their past, the people of the Lord miss out on such encouragement, and their hope, and a renewed faith since they have also seen the Lord in their lives, but haven’t been talking about it.
We should all be prepared, when someone says, “Have you seen the Lord?” to know what our answer will be.
You know that Easter morning is one of those days in the Church year when more people show up for worship than normal; the attendance is sometimes two or three times the average. Well, one rector wouldn’t leave that question alone when seeing folks that haven’t been regular.
One Easter morning, a man in the parish who was quite regular in attendance brought along with him a friend of his. The devoted parishioner had finally managed to break his friend’s habit of not attending on Sundays, and convinced him to join him on this one holy day. So the liturgy was completed, and the devoted parishioner and his reclusive friend were going through the greeting line after the service to shake hands with the rector, who was standing at the door, as always. They got to the rector, and without warning, the priest grabbed the friend’s hand and actually pulled him aside.
The rector said to him, “You need to join the Army of the Lord.”
The usually absent friend replied, “I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Father.”
The rector questioned him: “How come I don’t see you except at Christmas and Easter?”
The man got close to the priest’s ear and whispered, “I’m in the Secret Service.”
The friend witnessed to being a part of the body of Christ, as in “I’m already in the Army of the Lord.” And yet his absence meant not only not being counted, but that his testimony was questioned. How in fact did this man see the risen Lord in such a way as to say that at all?
What happens to our faith, and what happens to the life of the Church, when the witness of God through Jesus Christ being alive and real is silenced, not spoken? We find ourselves distancing, and without much inspiration or motivation to be in fellowship. The blood pressure bottoms out. And the warmth of the body goes cold. Where is Jesus? Show me Jesus. The Greeks would say, “We would see Jesus.”
So then the opposite is true: Whether you are a witness of Jesus Christ in your life and you choose not to share — for whatever reason, or whether a congregation goes on in its life without inviting that sharing, to not hear current, real life, sometimes not very dramatic testimonies, is to undermine the congregation’s belief in a risen Jesus who has something to say now.
In other words, if your church feels lifeless, then check the lifeblood first. If something that is electrical in your home isn’t working or running, the first thing you do is to check to see if it is plugged in. The lifeblood of the ability to believe and hold on to the reality of a God from 2,000 years ago is reliant upon hearing that people’s lives and their problems now are still finding God solutions now.
If we don’t hear this in some form, we relegate our personal lives, and the effect is on the congregational life, to a God of yesterday, who doesn’t seem to be faithful to provide good works now, and if so, then also not for the rest of our time.
With that need for current now witnessing in mind, you can see how even a regular service for the purpose of such witnessing, such testimony, can be deadly when the same testimonies (bless their hearts) are being given each and every week.
The main thing here, though, is to encourage, facilitate, and elicit the stories of how God is real in our lives, day in and day out.
Signs of health in a congregation include what we do in worship and in fellowship and in Christian action. Singing, praise, rejoicing. Praying, offering, humbling, loving. All these are commanded in worship, and outside of worship at various places in Scripture.
We must balance our worship and action between spirit (the subjective part: body, soul, emotions) and truth (the objective aspect: all that God has revealed in his word).
At the core of any of it, both in worship and in action outside of worship, in a healthy congregation will be the fresh and reminded testimony to seeing the Lord Jesus alive and working in our lives.
May our eyes never cease to look for the risen Lord Jesus, who is alive, and find him!
The Rev. Robert G. Eaton is a retired priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.