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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Great expectations not novel

Signs of life to be found across this church if we take the time to notice

Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.” He said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside.” So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” But he said to her, “There are no more.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest” (2 Kings 4:1-7).

Stephen P. Bouman, executive director of the ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission unit, often uses this Bible story when talking to groups about the possibilities for mission and ministry in their neighborhood. He asks them what catches their attention in this story — some say the desperate poverty, others say the anguish of children being forced into slavery. Everyone says the miracle of the oil.

What people rarely notice and what Bouman always points out is Elisha’s question to the woman. His point is that no matter how bleak a congregation’s circumstances seem to be, there already exists some capacity in that congregation for mission and ministry. We are not helpless people without agency. God has already given us what we need to participate with God in the work of God’s kingdom.

Too often we lapse into a paralysis of grief or anxiety or nostalgia that renders us incapable of seeing anything but scarcity. We don’t have enough money or members or young people. The creditors are at our door and we don’t even have any children to give them. The end isn’t near, it’s here.

One of the most frequently asked questions after I was elected was “What is your plan to reverse the decline in membership?” There are some major assumptions packed into that question — that I have the power to change the church, that there exists some miraculous plan or program that, if applied correctly, will save the church, to name just two. The question also assumes that all of our ministries and all of us live in absolutely empty houses, that we are helpless and completely lacking to be able to participate in God’s mission. That is not true.


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