When I was 19 years old, in my last summer a bachelor, three close friends and I piled into a car, and drove east from Toronto. Our plan was to explore New England, covering as much ground as we could in four days. We didn’t have much on the agenda, only to see and to discover.
I wish the trip brought me some sort of epiphany, amid the ascetic practice of eating nothing but canned beans and sitting in the car’s cramped back seat for several hours straight, but no great light shone. There were moments of beauty, however: drinking French press coffee under towering, moss-covered oaks somewhere in Connecticut; waking to the quiet of a cranberry bog, set next to the church parking lot in which we slept while in Massachusetts. One sunset over an inlet north of Boston was splendid, turning everything to gold, and breaking my heart for almost an hour.
On the third night of our trip, we arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. We pitched a tent in some bushes off the highway and fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves, not really aware of much else in the dark.
When we woke in the morning, we walked around the beach, before moving into town to find coffee. At a café, we soon realized it was Sunday, and that we probably ought to go to church. We didn’t need to search far to find the tall tower of an old white church. We walked up the cobblestone path and entered mid-sermon. A kind, older gentleman seemed surprised we were there, but led and shut the four of us into a box pew. Fewer than 15 people were in the building (including us), but I remember the priest gave her sermon with gusto and skill. I listened attentively, surprised at her warmth and evident love for the Lord. I was puzzled: Why was the sanctuary so empty? Her words clearly had the ring of truth to them. Why didn’t anyone else come to hear? Why were the pews so empty? What was the point in putting on the whole show for these few, nodding heads?
That’s when I looked over and saw a scene that has remained etched in my mind, even years later. I saw a middle-aged woman with flowing brown hair, sitting with her family, children and husband gathered in her arms; her eyes were closed, and her face was glowing. I saw her visible pleasure as she savored the sermon, reveling in the Word of God preached.
I then knew it was all worth it. We quietly slipped back out into the wet green world, silently thinking our own thoughts. This was my first experience with the Episcopal Church, and the living Anglican tradition. Years later I found out we were at Trinity Episcopal Church.
I have been reflecting on the vocation of the pastor lately, and this memory has come to mind once again. It can be discouraging to be faithful when the future seems bleak, when you are preaching sermons to empty pews instead of engaged, wide-open eyes. I empathize with priests who work tirelessly to preach the gospel for their whole lives, and still see congregations dwindle. As I continue in postulancy and my discernment of a pastoral vocation, I can be frustrated by closing parishes and rumors of the same. I am sure this discouragement plagues faithful laypeople, especially older folks, who have watched firsthand as their congregations decline, though they continue to hear the Scriptures, pray fervently, and serve the Lord daily.
I realize that there are often good reasons people aren’t flocking to our churches, and they are worth addressing. Yet even when priests and parishioners are leading faithful lives (in the midst of all of our sin, of course), congregations can seem to stagnate and decline. In situations like these we are tempted to give up: If we join another, more creative congregation, perhaps we can be part of lively crowd that will somehow make us more lively, too. We can forget that our Lord calls us to follow him, without giving us the promise that crowds will follow us.
Eugene Peterson, in his memoir The Pastor, picks up on the deceitful nature of the lures to congregational “growth” that aim at drawing a crowd.
Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence — religious meaning, God meaning — apart from God as revealed in the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but, at least in America, almost never against the crowds. Probably because they get so much ego benefit from the crowds. But a crowd destroys the spirit as thoroughly as excessive drink and depersonalized sex. It takes us out of ourselves, but not to God, only away from him. The religious hunger is rooted in the unsatisfactory nature of the self. We hunger to escape dullness, the boredom, the tiresomeness of me. … A crowd is an exercise in the false transcendence upward, which is why all crowds are spiritually pretty much the same, whether at football games, political rallies, or church.
What Peterson is getting at is that our desire to be part of a crowd replaces our desire for Christ with that of imagined ecclesial success. Not that having a thriving congregation is a bad thing; I wish all of our congregations were lively and healthy! What is more, there are good reasons, perhaps, to join another congregation. It is a disastrous mistake, however, to think that a large group of people in one building on Sunday is somehow more faithful than the meager few in another.
Faithfulness is not something we can rightly measure, especially this side of death. We have to leave this to God. And although this is something so true it has become a truism, I need to risk being a clanging symbol by saying it again: we are called to be faithful — not necessarily successful.