Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” —Matthew 8:20
It only recently occurred to me what a radical thing it is for Christians to refer to a local congregation as a church “home.” When we first moved to Nashville, people asked, “Have you found a church home?”
Really they meant, “Where do you go on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m.?”
The term church home sounds warm and familiar. But the call to follow Jesus so completely transforms the Christian that the very center of life—the home—is relocated in the body of Christ—the church. Church as home ought to be the image of the people of God preparing a place that Jesus would recognize as an outpost of the kingdom upon his return.
I’ve been haunted lately by one of the most powerful illustrations I’ve read in a long time. It’s a keep-me-up-at-night kind of image. In his book An Anxious Age, Joseph Bottum gives a lovely but eerie description of the swallows that visit the mission of San Juan Capistrano—or, I should say, the swallows that used to visit the mission. His description stirred some painful questions about the next generation seeking a home in the church.
Perhaps you know of the iconic birds used to descend every spring, darting around the old mission’s corridors and swooping through the bell tower? Until one spring, when poorly timed construction that was intended to spruce the mission up a bit knocked down several nests and dried up the cozy mud puddles. I imagine a few swallows tried to return, but without the nests and the puddles to make sense of the changing landscape, they didn’t recognize the place as home anymore.
Something is out of place when the church bells ring at old Capistrano and the birds are not there to join the tune.
Long before I knew I would be the chaplain at a Christian university and working with young adults, I wrote a book with my husband, Tim, about a new generation seeking a place in the church. After seeing too many of our dear friends and colleagues struggle in or leave the church altogether, we attempted to offer language and a theological framework for the challenges young people faced in the church set against their continued need to seek a place in the church. We suggested that young people take on a prophetic presence in the Christian community that calls forth hospitality from a church that claims to be home to so many.
Curiously, the book resonated with an entirely different audience than we intended. Sure, there were young readers who connected with the stories in our chapters, but they weren’t the ones coming up to us at conferences to tell us how much it meant to them. It was primarily much older, lifelong church members who, after serving faithfully on church boards and in Sunday school classrooms and at Tuesday night prayer meetings and on the kitchen clean-up teams, had found they hardly recognized their church homes anymore.
These older church members would probably point to some of the usual suspects: moving the organ off the platform to make room for a drum set, pews turned into firewood to make room for uncomfortable chairs, a favorite Bible-based curriculum cast aside in favor of more informal, small group conversations. But it’s more than that, and we know it.
For our tribe of Christians in the U.S. called Nazarenes, things like Sunday night services and Wednesday night Caravans were the nooks and crannies in which the nest of church life was carefully cradled. These shared practices were the cross beams on which the people of God pieced together doctrine, theology, sacraments, ethics, and some kind of biblical hermeneutic. It may have been a hot mess of a nest at times, but it was where the Spirit of God met these people and re-created them into the body of Christ.
Were the swallows’ nests necessary to mission of San Juan Capistrano? Of course not. In fact, they were probably thought of as a nuisance on more than one occasion. Imagine priests covering their heads and darting from one covering to the next, groundskeepers mumbling curses over the poop-covered walkways. But something is out of place when the church bells ring at old Capistrano and the birds are not there to join the tune.
Does the mission of God depend on a Sunday evening service? Certainly not! And, these days, back in the big booth at Kay’s Diner down the street, a nest is being built as good church people share coffee and pie while their kids make paper airplanes out of old menus.
Sure, the leaders of Capistrano tried to entice the birds back with handcrafted, clay nests and conveniently located puddles made with green garden hoses. And a few birds came and splashed around. But as a whole, they somehow knew—this was not home. Not anymore.
Somewhere in the middle, the church made some well-intentioned changes to try to make worship more palatable to future generations. But now the old birds feel out of place, and the young birds are wise to the fact that something about this nest feels fake.
How wonderfully ironic for millennials that they can share more in common with their grandparents than their oversized, thrift-store sweaters. These two generations are both struggling to find their place. Somewhere in the middle, the church made some well-intentioned changes to try to make worship more palatable to future generations. But now the old birds feel out of place, and the young birds are wise to the fact that something about this nest feels fake.
Right now the church is desperately hoping and praying that our children will return to their church home after a long winter of extended adolescence. In some cases these cultural nests that have been built in local congregations are turned inward, making it difficult for outsiders or returners to find a welcome place. Church life can easily be crafted to serve only those insiders who have stayed, and there simply is no place for an odd bird. Often the returners and newcomers aren’t given an opportunity to take meaningful part in building what this church home will look like in the generations to come.
Many millennials are turned off to the manufactured environments of services and ministries aimed specifically to entice them. Sure, they may attend from time to time when the social climate is just right, or even flock in large numbers for a season. But rarely will they find a real home in those large crowds huddled in the dim lighting of LED-flickering candles.
Older church members are much more likely to stay in their uncomfortable new chairs listening to the same chorus repeated ten times at varying volumes. All the essentials are still there, even if the nests are made of clay and the puddles filled by green garden hoses. But it doesn’t feel much like home anymore.
Despite the struggles of these two generations, the radical call of Christian discipleship is still ringing clear. To follow Christ is to be re-created at our very core and in the power of the Spirit to engage in the long, hard work of building a new center of life, a community of believers that is both a place of welcome to their neighbors and a place of rest for the weary.
Re-creation work is happening—not necessarily in church buildings but in shared practices of the Christian community where the people of God find themselves at home following our wandering Lord. Consider those shared practices—the cross beams on which the life of the church is knit together, even if they are odd and covered with a layer of scat. Before you take out the hose, look more closely. Peer into the nooks and crannies and see if there just might be a place for some odd birds.
Some of these practices are truly unhelpful and not suitable for the people of God to build a home. Occasionally our practices are inherently divisive or exclusive, turning the church inward upon itself or turning its back to the witness of Jesus. I cannot imagine how anything built in these kinds of practices can welcome the Spirit of the living God, nor can I conceive of a reason to preserve their place in the church.
There have been enough blogs and books written that condemn the obsession with the kind of church-growth strategy that swept away so many of the nesting places in our churches. This is not one of those pieces. This is not a condemnation at all.
This is the ringing of the church bell that keeps me up at night—praying, hoping, trusting that the Spirit of God will not leave the nest in which I met Jesus and was welcomed into his body.
Our work is not to spruce up an old place in hopes of attracting our young people back. Our work is to tend to our church home as a radical means of participating in the new creation of God in this world.
As Robert Jensen is fond of saying, “Where the Spirit is, there the church is also. Where the church is, there you will find the Spirit.” When we are tending to this home for the Spirit of God, our primary concerns shift. The concern is not, Are young people flocking back? but, rather, Are we tending to a home in which young people can give and receive hospitality? (And if young people are absent, don’t be too quick to answer yes.) Likewise, the concern is not, Are the old people complaining again? but, rather, Are we tending to a home where our aging members are given a place to work and witness in the body of Christ? (And if old people are complaining, don’t be too quick to answer yes.)
The new creation of the work of God is happening in Christian communities and local congregations where the people of God are tending to the dwelling place of the Spirit of God. Our work is not to spruce up an old place in hopes of attracting our young people back. Our work is to tend to our church home as a radical means of participating in the new creation of God in this world. This work doesn’t pit the generations against each other but partners them together to prepare a place that is ready to welcome our Lord when he returns.