A fountain in Washington Park in Albany, New York, offers insight and perspective for local churches.
When I first visited, I noticed the beautiful statuary all around the fountain’s center.
From a distance, I wondered if it was Poseidon with his trident upraised and attended by his court.
As I got closer, I realized that it was a different scene being recreated, which I knew from years spent in Baptist Sunday school. The fountain recreates Moses striking the rocks with his staff and the waters pouring forth.
I found myself wondering how the generations of park visitors saw this same fountain.
Surely when it was dedicated, it was with great pride and common knowledge of this story from Scripture.
Today, with the Capital District ranking highly (and nearby Vermont the same) with a distinct “religiously disinclined” or “nones” populace, does the fountain resonate with mere aesthetics (for it is beautiful) and really not with the biblical text inspiring its creation?
For all of us, those who see Poseidon, those who see Moses and those who just go to the “cool fountain,” I say, “Welcome to 2017!”
This is the context every local congregation (American Baptist, Christian or otherwise) deals with on a day-to-day basis.
The brave faith communities are the ones who understand it, mourn the change and then look for ways to move into the challenges such a time as this presents.
When I visit congregations, I find that for many, there’s a very offensive four-letter word that I likely get into trouble for bringing up: risk.
Risk is what makes a church or any other organization do something other than feel left on the sidelines by change.
Change comes at us, change rushes past, without looking to see if we’ve reacted to it. Change, after all, is not the “enemy.” It’s part of the world we live in. How we decide to engage what change brings is the challenge.
Most of us would enjoy church if it were more like the park we can visit in Albany – a stroll and a bit of leisure. Yet, that park is also the creation and ongoing commitment of a city to keep up the park.
Church is about brick and mortar. If you are a trustee or deacon, you pray for the brick and the mortar each night as you remember the last time pointing had to be done and the bills and headaches that followed.
Church is about worship services. If you are involved with worship, you know it comes with the weekly wrestling match of getting a sermon to come together and the difficulty of getting everything “just right” to help the gathered worshippers sing and pray together.
Church is about the little stuff that makes a person feel connected enough to move from being a visitor to becoming a member who serves and shares their gifts in various capacities.
Church is a lot of things, but it’s more than all of this. It’s also about evangelism, outreach and being part of a community and its needs.
You’ve undoubtedly heard this over the years in various forms and with opinions about what was tried and what failed.
Indeed, you may have read Moses’ struggles in leading the people of Israel and thought to yourself, “Are you sure that was back in ancient times? Some of it sounded quite familiar and hits close to home!”
Every congregation has its ups and its downs. How it learns to thrive, to become more resilient to challenges, even energized by them, will be a matter of learning how to risk and live to tell about it.
What the future holds is uncertain and involves a decision about what risk you are willing to explore.
We should remember that whatever each person has on their hearts and minds, whatever each person wishes to say out loud at the meeting (or outside in the parking lot afterward), each of us has the blessing of this story about Moses, the people and a rock that sprang forth with water.
God is with us, even when we think God has given up on us (or we’ve just given up on our own).
I’d like to think that local churches can be like that New York park where much toil and effort happens by the work of many hands willing to engage in the mundane tasks of day-to-day needs as well as the short moments when beautiful fountains and flowers are admired and appreciated.
Churches are places where much good can come even from people wearied or worried by the circumstances at hand.
Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. His writings can also be found on his blog, Preaching and Pondering, where a longer version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.