When Ben Rosenbach’s best man got up to offer the traditional toast at his wedding reception the other night, he burst into tears. He had a difficult time becoming composed enough to say anything at all. All his fond memories of his childhood with Ben met with the joy his best friend was experiencing — it was a collision of grief, joy and surprise. His point was that Ben is full of love and truth and his character will be a blessing to Megan. But there were many other things swirling inside him other than his point. He found himself in the middle of a moment of change — for Ben and for him. He was sure Ben would bring all the good things of their past as backyard buddies into the future, but the future was not going to be the same as the past.
As I watched that in the beautified Broad and Washington space, I couldn’t help but think that many people who worship together there are having similar feelings as they watch Circle of Hope move into the future. They have a lot of very fond memories of the church’s childhood and now it is not the same anymore — and it is not going to be the same. They know we are taking all the good things we became in our past into the future. But our future is not going to be the same as our past.
One of the members of my Coordinating Group told the other cell leaders in the group last week that, “Every time I hear Rod talk about ‘what’s next’ I wince” — and I talk about that a lot. It is one of our distinctives as a church to “move with what the Spirit is doing next.” It’s a whole chapter in the book I was assigned to write! I have to admit, that some days I feel so bad about making someone wince that I wince when I talk about what’s next too! It is good news that God has redeemed us and is making us new. But sometimes all that changing feels like bad news.
We made one big decision when we organized as Circle of Hope and we have always reaffirmed it. We decided to be one church in many locations. We are intentionally multi-celled – as a network of cell groups and as collections of cells forming congregations that are joined as a network. This was not too hard to deal with when we were a mother congregation and a flourishing daughter. Now we are four congregations and many years down the road. No one can really know everyone. Most people don’t have a good idea of our history. It is difficult to put one’s mind around everything that happens in a week. As a result, for some people, “It is not the same anymore.” And for the last 100 new people who entered when it was as it is, it never was “the way it used to be.”
I bring this up because I think we are all facing a big challenge right now. I can see it in the discerning process, and I could feel it last year, too. It takes a very mature group of believers to stay engaged with the big possibilities we face. While we will always have the joys of being face-to-face congregations and of personally ministering and receiving care in cells, we are also a substantial network. Everyone needs to love the whole church and the whole region, too, not just their cell or congregation. At the same time, everyone needs to love their cell, congregation and neighborhood and not get lost in the network. This takes a vision of the redemption project that is more like Jesus’ all the time.
Maybe it is not so hard to have a big vision like that, theoretically. We do love Circle of Hope. It is an exciting church doing meaningful things in faith. But being a part of Circle of Hope can also be like going to a friend’s wedding all the time. We grow up and start new things. The love we share in Jesus keeps forming more family! We end up more than we were before, even when we liked what we were before. We end up needing new leaders who can handle the new organism we have become. In the moment, it is easy to feel a little overwhelmed by that, until we get enough composure to toast it!
As a people, we need to struggle with discerning how God wants to use who we are now, rather than perfecting what we used to be. That is tough! We have to apply our proverbs to ourselves in a new way and keep leaving our “precious memories” of Circle of Hope behind so we can take what is best into the future.
We’ll make it through our most recent transition, I think. God will help us. Our engines of change in South Jersey and North Philly will give us reason to keep up. The visionaries who make up our developing Leadership Team and staff will steady the helm. But it really takes a lot of love from everyone; it takes some mature love. It takes things like getting through the toast at the wedding and honoring your buddy’s marriage. We really want to do such things and we really don’t. So we need to be real people of faith. We planned Circle of Hope to require real people of faith to survive. That hasn’t changed.