I attend a large, affluent, successful church in a very wealthy community in northeast Florida (Christ Church, Ponte Vedra). Each Sunday, the pews are full. The sermons are first rate and the choir sings beautifully. If I did not know better, I would be tempted to believe that every Episcopal church experienced the same dynamism, enjoyed similar opportunities, and had similar resources at its disposal. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I know better.
For thirteen years I worshiped in an Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Rhode Island that to this day fights for its very survival. In Rhode Island, a disproportionate number of parishes cannot pay their bills, spend down their endowments at an alarming rate, and face declining membership. This is not necessarily the fault of any one person or of the leadership of any particular parish. It is a sign of systemic cultural transformation. To put it mildly, the world in which our churches live has changed dramatically. Many church leaders in Rhode Island, for instance, have inherited aging, historic buildings, many of which are on the National Register, and all of which are incredibly expensive to maintain and whose architecture is anachronistic. The church unwittingly has found itself in the business of historic preservation rather than gospel proclamation. The church has become moribund at best, and leaders are virtually powerless to affect changes that will bring about necessary transformation.
I make this point in the context of the Day of Pentecost when we celebrate the “birthday” of the church. On this day, we read how the Spirit of God descended on the followers of Jesus, giving them power to proclaim God’s love and to continue the work of Jesus in our world. However, before we read about the Spirit, we read those famous words from Ezekiel about the dry bones.
Ezekiel was one of the great prophets of the exile. After the capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel’s ministry changed dramatically from offering oracles of warning to proclaiming prophetic words of hope. As a prophet of the exile, Ezekiel proffered the assurance of God’s faithfulness to people who experienced a disorienting and bewildering world. In the midst of hopelessness, Ezekiel offered the hope of restoration to homeland and temple.
Today, we read Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel. 37. 1-14). The Lord places Ezekiel in the middle of a valley that was full of dry bones – many dry bones. The Lord asks him, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely responds, “O Lord God, you know” (Probably a good idea to defer to God on this one). In fact, God does know, for the bones come together. Out of death comes new life – once dead bones resuscitated by the breath from the four winds.
This of course is a type of resurrection story. The dry bones are the exiles of Israel who had no hope of new life. They had no greater chance or restoration than the skeletons in the valley had hope of resuscitation. However, the trajectory of God’s work throughout the biblical record is from death to live. God always takes what is moribund and imbues it with new life and hope. The good news is that God moves God’s people in the direction of reconciliation, from hopelessness to hope, from division to unity, from discord to peace.
In fact, the people of Israel did enjoy restoration. The exile ended and some chose to return to a somewhat restored Jerusalem. However, it is fair to say that even restoration brought change. The old adage, “You can’t go home again” is true because while we were gone “home” changed. Therefore, anyone looking for God to restore things to “the way things were” will be sadly disappointed. That is just not the way things work.
Many churches in our Episcopal communion are moribund. They are on life support. They are spending down endowments, selling off property, transitioning from full-time to part-time clergy, cutting programs, circling the wagons – in short, doing anything to postpone the inevitable. They have become like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley. Can the dry, bare bones of the church live? The hard truth is that many of them cannot live in their current state.
When I served on the Congregational Development Commission of the Diocese of Rhode Island, we talked often about the need for transformation and consolidation. When something no longer works, it is time for bold, faithful action. It is time to celebrate the past and to embrace future opportunity. In many cases, future opportunity will not come until death is complete. However, we are a stubborn species. Often, we hold on until the very end, often allowing our affection for a familiar and perhaps even beautiful building, our love of tradition, or simply our comfort with the familiar, to supercede our desire to serve Jesus and to proclaim the Gospel. The work of the Commission, therefore, was virtually impossible because the churches that were closest to death were the most likely to hold on the tightest and to be the least effective.
I believe in transformation. I believe that the same God who restored the people of ancient Israel continues to work miracles of love in our world. I also believe, however, that the very institutions created to serve as vessels of God’s love have become the walls that prevent us from exercising the power that we proclaim at Pentecost. The dry bones can indeed live. God will see to that. However, we must be willing to let go, to allow some pieces of our institutions to die. Leaders will need to make difficult choices, to run the risk of offending, to speak the truth regardless of the consequences. We need to worry less about preserving institutions and more about loving people. We need to concern ourselves less with historic preservation and more with momentous transformation. God is with us, asking us, “Will these bones live?” They will indeed live – if we get out of the way!