Growing up, I traveled with my father around the back roads, making our way to check on various places where we pastured cattle or had crops planted. Going down one dirt road after another, I remember being quite puzzled why one of these roads seemed to veer off in another direction, a strangely sharp turn around a bend. (Note: Given that this was Kansas, a much flatter terrain, I know that a road like this does not sound that much out of the ordinary to Vermonters.) One day as we made our way down that particular road and neared the strange veering off along the road, I asked my father why the road was so oddly designed.
Father pointed out a bramble of trees and brush just beyond the bend. He told me that decades ago the road used to go straight ahead, leading to a homestead about a quarter mile over the horizon. When the land sold, the farm house and the road were abandoned. The road reverted back to weed trees and tall grass, and the county road crew just made due by reshaping the rest of the intersection as best they could. Unless you knew where to look, you’d think that there had never been a road there.
The British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes tells the story of workers renovating an old residence. Working in the basement, they were quite puzzled by a pit they found downstairs. Was it the place where coal was stored up until needed for heating the family home? They had never quite seen one just like it. After some inquiries, they discovered that the house used to be a small Baptist chapel, which eventually sold the property to a developer decades ago. The chapel had been turned into a duplex, and the “coal pit” turned out to be the one-time congregation’s baptistery!
These two stories remind us that times change. A house was built by an enterprising family in one generation and a couple of generations removed, the years of work creating a homestead out on the Kansas prairie became a curious footnote, nearly forgotten. What looked like a coal pit was really a sacred place, a “home” of sorts for the faithful, where they were to be brought into the fellowship of a congregation and more importantly, to follow Jesus obediently into the baptismal waters.
A congregation could build a chapel (in this sense of the word, a smaller church building), and years later the very focal point of a Baptist worshipping community (its baptistery) had been long disused, its original purpose forgotten as the congregation moved on to build bigger facilities elsewhere or the fellowship simply disbanded at some point in the past.
Today we encounter a road of sorts. The path to baptism and the way of discipleship intersect necessarily where we move from being an interested learner to the decision to follow Jesus as believers. Each Christian has to follow this pathway (though curiously the road may seem longer or shorter, steeper or smoother, depending on the faith journey made by an individual). Nonetheless, along that way, as a person moves toward baptism and the life of discipleship, the Church has the task of road upkeep. Without a community of believers encouraging and supporting newcomers to the faith, the pathways might be forgotten, leaving very little clue about how to find one’s way along the path of Christian discipleship.
This past year, we only had one baptism. Christopher Redding came to First Baptist, thanks in part to the encouragement of his grandmother and parents and the time we spent together talking about the faith. I again apologize for the “cold mountain stream water” he encountered the day he was baptized, yet nonetheless, he became a follower of Jesus through his exploration of faith, his study of Christian scriptures and readings, and his willingness to search, ask questions and ponder the beliefs of Christianity in his heart. The membership numbers may not have leapt upwards by the dozen in 2011, yet I believe we helped Christopher begin a lifelong journey. Some of this journey ahead is by his continuing choice to do so. Nonetheless, this congregation and others in his future have the task of being places where pilgrims on the journey can find hospitality, support and opportunities to grow.
After all, what else are congregations for?
On PBS this winter, the second series of Downton Abbey will air over the course of several Sunday evenings. Set in the era around the first World War, the story traces the waning years of a country estate where the aristocrats watch their world of privilege being outmoded and the dozens of household and grounds staff get caught up in the changes sweeping society (the suffrage movement, the escalation up to WWI, the growing opportunities for persons to leave the rural villages in pursuit of greater opportunities in the city, etc.).
At the helm of the family and ancestral estate is the Lord of the estate, Sir Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham. He is the last of a line, and through situations beyond his control, he finds his title and the estate’s future in question. A distant cousin, never in consideration as an heir, becomes the inheritor of the estate and title when two relatives die in the sinking of the Titanic. Now trying to make the best of it, Lord Grantham is introducing his cousin Matthew to what will await the younger man when the estate and title are passed over. Walking around the estate grounds, the two men look at the large manor home, a sight that Cousin Matthew is not quite ready to consider “his” someday. Sir Robert observes,
Lord Grantham: You do not love the place yet.
Matthew Crawley: Well, obviously, it’s…
Lord Grantham: No, you don’t love it. You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that will crack in the frost.
Matthew Crawley: But you don’t?
Lord Grantham: I see my life’s work.
Sometimes we lose sight in congregations about our basic mission. We build places of worship and then spend more time worrying about upkeep than we do mission. When Downton Abbey first aired a year ago, I quoted Lord Grantham’s line about “a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes, stone cracking in the frost” at the Trustee meetings as it spoke to one of the tensions we deal with having such a large building. Yet I also quoted the other of Lord Grantham’s lines regarding the property: “I see my life’s work.”
Here in this place, we have a mission that is delightfully diversified. In part, we have the missional church work of providing space to community programs and various non-profit activities that help people meet their basic human needs. This work has helped us generate revenue to tackle present and deferred upkeep needs, while also raising our value in the community as a place where people can find help. Indeed, this coming Thursday, Wayne and I will be guest lecturers for a Doctor of Ministry class in Kansas City, speaking to a group of pastors learning new skills to deal with this strange world we are now living in, where people have decreasing interest in “religion”, numbers have declined across the denominations, and what little “margin” is left in many congregations is not able to keep up with the demands of increasing bills and a tough economy. First Baptist is part of the solution to the problem, as we have put together over the past three-plus years a new way of keeping a “large building and a smaller congregation” as a recipe for good things yet to come rather than “it’s only a matter of time”.
Of course, now that we have gotten some of the “big picture” issues resolved (missional purpose chief among them), what does it mean to be also “in love” with this place? For congregations, “place” or “home” is more than just a collection of bricks, pipe, and stone. We are more than the sum of property. To understand “church”, you have to talk about people who believe in Jesus and find ways to encourage one another in the life of faith through the corporate/communal practices of a congregation. Our love of place grows out of singing and praying together, serving one another and the neighbor in need alike, reading and discerning God’s word for us today, and especially for Baptists, knowing how to throw a good ole potluck. We sometimes bog down in questions of brick and mortar, yet we are learning not to be defined by them.
In the upcoming bylaws proposed for your consideration and vote, we are looking at strengthening and streamlining the number of boards. Our present bylaws presume nearly two dozen people to serve in ongoing officer or board membership. As we assessed the present day needs of First Baptist, we need leadership to manage financial and property issues, yet we also need a board to oversee what it means to be a member of First Baptist. Discipleship takes on many forms: worship, education, fellowship, care, and service. This proposed board takes primarily the place of the Board of Deacons and the Board of Christian Education, being charged with the task of asking good questions of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how First Baptist can be a place that helps us individually and communally flourish.
As we look at realigning our boards, we aim to strengthen our ministry and mission, so that we can keep up with our primary reason for being, which is to keep the faith and encourage others, especially those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ. We can only benefit from spending more time asking questions and exploring what it means to be better disciples, deepening our engagement with becoming a worshipping, learning, caring and serving community of believers. Our past and our present depend on our willingness to keep into the future with this mission, lest the path and the household we have become outmoded, forgotten as time moves on and what we’ve been about for nearly 185 years becomes a fading footnote.
There are many roads we traverse in life. Sometimes, the roads are straight and smooth. Other times, we find ourselves on the twists and turns of difficult terrain. Faith can be just like either type of road, veering off when we least expect or taking us down paths that we don’t know if we can quite make it all the way across. I give thanks constantly that when I’m out on such roads, I can see the well-worn footpaths of other saints (and even a few sinners) that have gone on ahead of me.
Together, we gather each week to worship and grow together in faith. Together, we keep up with this place that is more than the sum of its utility bills and maintenance upkeep. Together, we aim to be the group of disciples who tell and live out this story called “gospel”, so that others may seek and find. Together, we search for the roads that lead us to our true home.