On a recent visit to the Holy Land, we were given a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the oldest and holiest Christian sites in all of Jerusalem, which basically makes it one of the oldest and holiest Christian sites in the world.
Our guide took us to a small chapel that stands opposite the Shrine of the Holy Sepulcher – a chapel that had been nearly destroyed by fire once, and never rebuilt. There is a light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the chapel, which gives the smoke-ruined room its only light. The guide proceeded to tell us the following story once we were inside:
It seems that the bulb burned out in the chapel many years ago after the fire. None of the Christian denominations that vie for control of the church itself wanted to concede authority over the chapel to another denomination, but none of them particularly wanted control over it themselves. So no one changed the bulb. On the one hand, the bulb needed changing, but if any one group allowed another group to change the bulb, it would indicate they controlled the chapel. Instead, they all preferred to leave the chapel in darkness than concede the space.
Finally someone solved the problem by asking a member of a local Muslim family to intervene. The man purchased a bulb and sneaked into the chapel where he changed it surreptitiously. And so it has been ever since. None of the Christian groups would change the bulb when it burned out; instead they left it to the Muslim family to do when no one was looking.
This story might seem unbelievable to someone who has no understanding of the institutional church. But to those of us within it – we can totally buy it, despite how farfetched it sounds.
As I stood there in the church that day, I watched people prostrate themselves on the rock where Jesus was traditionally laid after being taken off of the cross. These adherents from all over the world would take oil and anoint the rock and themselves in acts of devotion.
I watched people wait in line for hours for just a few seconds to pray in the spot where Jesus’ tomb was said to have been located. They came from all over the world – the penitent, the poor, the broken and the hopeful.
And their priests, their pastors, their shepherds fight over light bulbs.
What are we doing? The lost and the lonely are finding their way into our institutions and they don’t find Jesus … they find his followers.
There is a better way. The time for institutions is passing. For those of us who find ourselves serving within them, we have a choice to make. We can treat our institutions as though they are in hospice, administering just enough painkillers so that the end is peaceful and uneventful …
Or we can fight to keep them alive.
Or we can simply go where the life is.
This last choice seems like the most logical when we present the choices this way, but is not that simple. You see, there are some within the institutional church that are fighting over light bulbs while the world turns around them that don’t want to be the last ones standing when the whole thing falls apart. They want company. I can’t blame them, I suppose.
It’s always comforting to know that you will have someone with whom to rearrange the deck chairs while the boat is sinking. Or someone with whom to argue about who has the authority to change the lightbulb … while the lost, lonely masses gather in the deepening gloom.
But wouldn’t you rather be the one who just changes the bulb?
Jesus called us to be the light of the world, but when we can’t even decide who should change a bulb, how is the world ever going to see the light?
I think it’s time we constructed a new paradigm. Instead of fighting about who has the authority to change the light bulbs inside the church, why don’t we go outside and shine some light where the people live who need to see it? Because I guarantee you, once they come inside the institution and see how messed up we are – they won’t stay there.
What does this look like for those of us who find ourselves inside the institutional church? For some it might look like leaving. Or maybe it might look like transformation. Or maybe it looks just like returning to what Jesus called us to do in the first place.
Reverend Leon Bloder is a preacher, a poet, a would-be writer, a husband, a father, a son, a dreamer, a sinner, a pastor, a fellow-traveler and a failed artist. He is talentless, but well-connected. He stumbles after Jesus, but hopes beyond hope that he is stumbling in the right direction. Leon has been married to Merideth for 22 years, is the father of three awesome boys, and serves in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis in Eustis, Florida. Visit his website.