Second cousin to compassion

A guest post from Mr. 52godpickup, who did some seeking while I finished tax season.

11 a.m. Sunday worship, Pilgrim Congregational Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

I counted 23 souls in the sanctuary and it left me with an unfortunate moment of pity — the poor second cousin to compassion — and then the brooding sense one gets when watching a BBC documentary on ancient Crete.

Surely this was a thriving congregation once. There are pews available for a couple of hundred and a roomy parking lot out front, down the stone steps. A nice piece of real estate, too, on the nexus of Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Troy.

Where did the people go? Why did they leave? Were there angry words? A divisive pastor search? Or did members just slowly fade away, until the survivors went to church one fine morning, blinking in the summer sun, and realized they were alone?

These are interesting questions for a member of a declining Mainline Protestant church whose leadership bravely insists, as mine does (or did, I can’t decide yet), “We will not lead a dying congregation.”

The sad answers, I think, are the same for a church as they are for aging Japan and old Europe — when you lose children’s time, when the families go elsewhere, when your day-care centers are converted to nursing homes, then maybe only prayer can help you.

(Don’t get me wrong. A society needs octogenarians as much as we need toddlers, if only in part to answer some of the questions a visitor might bring, and to give younger members the sense of wonder I get when speaking to someone who was there at the founding … in this instance, 1961.)

To their credit, the people at Pilgrim Congregational Church understand their situation. Perusing their Sunday missal this morning, they pray that “God would bring new people to Pilgrim both to minister to and help us accomplish His plans for Pilgrim,” and, even more touchingly, that “God will direct Pilgrim to make any changes that He wants us to make and that we at Pilgrim would be open to His direction.”

And then the last chords of the opening hymn fell away and all these academic and gloomy thoughts were washed away by an organized, sincere jewel of a service that took as its cornerstone the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Paul’s message of joy was transmitted in the hymns, the Offertory Prayer, the formal Gospel reading and the informal sermon, all working to remind us, as Paul did in his missive from a Roman prison cell, separated from old friends and colleagues back in Macedonia, that the glass is not half-full or half-empty but always overflowing with God’s love for us.

That was Pastor John’s answer to me. What do you do when you have just 23 “saints,” as the church’s part-time preacher suggested we were? Well, you do the best you can and you thank God for the opportunity to deliver the message, and to absorb it.

Advertisements