In the summer of 2006 I got one of the strangest requests that I can remember. I had just been ordained to the priesthood and was preparing for my first semester as a campus minister at the University of Missouri when a Canon from the Diocese called me and asked if I could drive 60 miles to a small town where the diocese had just sold an old abandoned church. In my new and earnest priestly voice I agreed and the next day my wife and I took a little road trip.
After a quick and uneventful trip on Missouri’s high plain we arrived in the lazy and tired town. A town that surely thrived 50 years ago had turned into a slow and empty one not unlike most small towns in Missouri. With its fair share of beautiful historic buildings one remembers that life was once grand and that towns like this one were once prominent.
I’m sure there was abundant life at some point but today the greater community is left with a faint pulse and memories of promise past. Midwestern sensibilities and hospitality are still prevalent even if just a fraction of what they once were. But when the factories closed, mills dried up, and the train no longer stopped, a deflated community unfit for heath and growth remained.
The Episcopal Church in town really had no chance of surviving. There were a number of issues at play including the town’s size and demographics that made it nearly impossible to sustain an active and vibrant worshipping community. So I was sent to stand in the sanctuary and read to the open air a letter of deconsecrating the building on the bishop’s behalf.
The letter was short with big words and big meaning. It felt impossible to read. It was so heavy and sad and dead. I wasn’t called to be a priest so that I could bury churches, so doing this so soon into my ministry was a reality check of what happens when the life of a community slows down to an unrecoverable snail’s pace.
I’m constantly reminded about this day in my life when the wider church talks about its death. The lifeless, empty and dusty church that sat empty for so many years is finally closed and sold. A move that makes sense and one that I certainly support.
But when we talk death and the church dying my first response is that my church is not dead nor is it dying.
Campus Ministry is the antithesis of a dusty and empty church. And the college campus couldn’t be any different than an old and sleeping farm town on the Missouri plain.
I get that some places are slowing down and losing members. Interest might not be waning, but maybe an economy is and therefore people aren’t around as much. I get that there are other things in play besides a lack of evangelism or a great Sunday school. Things happen, places change, and just like the small town, sometimes it’s appropriate to close shop and move on.
But there is one place that moving on and closing shop or making cuts would be a great misstep in our work in the world, and that’s the college campus. Life is abundant. Life is full and real. Life is busy and active and amazing. The energy is unreal. I couldn’t think of a better place to do church and I couldn’t think of a better place to put our resources and invest.