The first time a colleague said this to me, I felt the total weight of her burden, coupled with an existential, ecclesial dread. To be sure, to the extent that my colleague's comment reflects the church-at-large's ongoing failure to sacrificially invest in and relationally connect with young adults, I continue to carry some of her broken heart in my work as a campus minister.
Gradually, however, the sting of my colleague's words began to wear off. My undergraduate work was in economics, and economists are always testing this or that truth with previously unspoken extremes, hopping aboard an asymptote and riding graphs into infinity. So my economist brain tried on this exaggerated version of my colleague's truth:
"In the next one hundred and fifty years, one hundred percent of my congregation will be buried, myself included."
Duh. Yes. Of course. Thus has it always been.
Thank God for resurrection hope!
And mission. Thank God for mission. None of us was with them when the women got up early on that first, pre-dawn Easter morning. But the women left the empty tomb for Galilee. That same day, they told some others. Who told some others. Who loved their Lord and the world he loved and went out and told some others. Who told some others. Who shared potlucks together. And sometimes brews. And told some others. Who built schools together. Hospitals, too. They learned patience together. And told some others. They grew in self-giving, generosity, and lovingkindness together and then told some others. Some of them told others who already knew, and so the telling became a kind of healing, a meeting and realigning with the reconciling purposes of God. They kept telling others. Kept loving others. Kept blessing others. Kept relying on their Lord's forgiveness and mercy when they messed up and failed the ones they went out to tell. But, even in failure, they kept telling others. They communicated the Good News of God's love in Christ with words and actions and living parables. Some of them told others who, in turn, opened their lives in love and spoke that love to you. The telling never goes out of season, never stops being the work of the people called Church.
After four years living the university rhythm, welcoming students and saying goodbye, my colleague's comment now feels downright luxurious to me. A student spends an average of two-and-a-half years as a member of St. Francis House. I've witnessed more than fifty regularly committed students share in the life of SFH in less than four years, but never all at once. We discover community afresh each semester. Students graduate. Study abroad. Transfer schools. Move back home. Discover Zombies vs. Humans. Something. Every semester, every week, every day is new. So every semester, every week, every Sunday gathered around the table, breaking the bread and share the cup - and all the other days between them - never stops being about the good work of welcoming, building community, discerning leadership, serving others, and proactively engaging in mission. We introduce ourselves each Sunday.
Of course, we grow and develop, but growing and developing does not mean advancing to a level of being God's people that does not, daily, involve all of these things.
Just like in parishes.
Almost like parishes. I guess the biggest difference is that, most of the time, when someone leaves St. Francis House the occasion is graduation. By contrast, my friend made her comment because she anticipated the deaths of Christians in her community. The Burial Office, for Christians, is maybe the ultimate graduation, but there is a deep sense of pain and grief and loss. There is pain and grief and loss also when a student graduates into an uncertain future, but there is still the overriding sense that this thing has happened because all has gone well. Even held by resurrection hope, it is hard to feel that all has gone well when a loved one dies of cancer or dementia or any number of terrible things that mean so much pain, so many small deaths, along the way.
I understand looking out at a congregation of loved ones and prematurely grieving the loss, in this life, of their love and holy friendships. I do not understand looking at that same impending loss as the loss of the life of the church. To do so feels like giving up on God's movement in the lives of the ones we haven't met; feels like tiring of telling others the beautiful things you have seen and known of God. The miracle of the Church's continued existence is the miracle of God's movement in the lives of people and people's movement to meet and tell others about the life of God.
St. Francis House graduated more students this year than belonged to the entire faith community my first year with the community. A good thing, both the graduations and the growth. I do not know who God will introduce to us in the coming year, but I expect the introductions, because I believe God is moving in the hearts and lives of strangers God would turn into our friends. I expect I will meet God's movement in the lives of others as I learn to move where God is moving, as I grow in vulnerability and, with God's help and this community, communicate the love of God in Christ with words and actions and living parables.
Is the uncertainty scary? Yes. Is trusting God's movement with vulnerability daunting and even, on some days, more than I signed up for? Absolutely. And yet, I cannot comprehend longing for a Church independent of these rhythms of vulnerability, movement, expectation, and telling. I do not think those who say, "In the next twenty years, ninety-five percent of my congregation will be buried," necessarily long for a Church independent of rhythms of vulnerability, movement, expectation, and telling, but into their grief and existential angst I want to whisper, "Yes, of course. Thus has it always been. The telling never goes out of season, never stops being the work of the people called Church."
It's hard work, but good work, because it is God's work. Shared with us. Thanks be to God.