Many church buildings seem more like time capsules than a place of action. I fondly remember my fifth grade English class with Miss Espenshade. My love for stories, reading, and writing was nurtured there. But other images rise in my mind of tedious drill exercises on the difference between nouns and verbs. Nouns are object words. Verbs are action words. Nouns are objects. Verbs indicate action. Ahhh. O.K., Miss Espenshade, I get it!

Is Church only a noun, or is it a verb? In what way is your Church an action word?

I’ve been learning a great deal about the wonder of story telling and realizing that the Church, any vital worshipping community, is a verb, not just a noun. I imagine that a church can be a welcoming and energizing place where a vital worshipping community engages the community at large. 

The church I serve as the transformation pastor is one of the oldest churches in New Jersey (1714). Located across the street from Historic Cold Spring Village, history is all around us. Literally, the remains of thousands of people are buried within steps of the front door to our red brick worship center.

If any church could be a time capsule, Cold Spring Church would qualify. And, for many years, decades even, church leaders have told me stories about when the church was little more than a time capsule, a noun alone. I ask the congregation a question: Are we a huge cemetery that happens to have a church building on the campus, or are we a vitally connected worshipping community with a huge cemetery? How they answer this question will determine the sustainability of their future. This mission hypothesis helps us evaluate our learning and growth.

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A time capsule church is characterized by no movement. No growth. Investments are directed towards preservation, the re-telling of old stories, doing ministry the same ineffective ways, and basically just a sealed container for admittedly wonderful, but old, stories. In other words, just a time capsule.

Time capsule churches are isolated from the community as if sealed in a vault and interred in their own cemetery. But no person, organization, or worshipping community needs to remain a victim to its past.

I am delighted that the Cold Spring Church congregation has been actively trying new things. Most every Sunday we welcome new and returning visitors to worship, and for many weekends of the year, we conduct popular campus tours of our historic church and cemetery. As a National Historic Landmark Site, it is included in most visitor guides for greater Cape May County. While we have incredible stories from the past to share, we have seized the opportunity of serving the thousands currently living in our community because our mission is not found in the past, but the future. We are exploring ways to make new connections during our tours and events. New families are joining. More people volunteer to join our teams. There is an increased energy at our events.

As the transformation pastor, my mission is to remind the leadership team, and equip the worshipping community, to imaginatively and effectively engage the community at large. We are co-writing with the community authentic new stories of hope, creating new points of connection, building new networks for more people to participate in God’s emerging future. And this transformational engagement is already working. (How we measure our mission and the results can be found here

Is your church looking more like a time capsule? Here’s a question you can explore with your team: ”How much energy do we invest in re-telling the past (church is noun) compared to effectively connecting to the community at large with new stories and re-creating to a new future (church is verb)?”

If your stories are stale, it may be time to hear the voice of Jesus like when he called forth Lazarus from the tomb, “Come out!”. Remove those grave clothes and open your arms to embrace your neighbors, earning the right every day to serve them and give shape to the Good News.

For Cold Spring Church, 300 years offers us credibility with the community, but our accessibility in the community offers us the right to tell new stories about the transforming power of the Greatest Story ever told.

Church, is it just a noun? Umm. I wonder what Miss Espenshade would say. 

(To explore creative ideas of storytelling and mission, see my post: What’s Your Story?)