In 2013, while Sunday school teachers at other churches taught about the importance of being molded into the image of Christ, mine spoke at length about an altogether different kind of mold. With spores saturating the air throughout our building that year, First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas, put the “fun” in “fungi.”
“Did you know that Leviticus includes instructions for dealing with mold?” our teacher asked, his eyes impish. “I think it would be appropriate for us to do a church-wide study on chapter 14 in particular.”
He made this suggestion shortly after mold specialists began subjecting our church to a major remediation that left much of the building without ceiling panels or flooring for almost two years. Appropriate indeed. During the process, our church probably repulsed visitors. In the sanctuary, one could not escape the mottled concrete subfloor, which looked like the surface of some pockmarked moon. In the hallways, a sinister twist of wires, foil-covered insulation, and tubing loomed above like something from the set of a sci-fi movie.
The longer the innards of the church remained exposed, the more my wife Becki and I wondered whether or not the church could weather such a crisis. With only a few hundred people in the pews every Sunday, we were anything but a megachurch with ample financial resources.
And even if the congregation could scrounge up enough money to cover the remediation, what would we do if the mold returned? Consider Leviticus’s instructions for a building that’s already undergone treatment: “If the defiling mold reappears in the house after the stones have been torn out and the house scraped and plastered … It must be torn down” (Lev. 14:43, Lev. 14:45 NIV). Would that fate eventually befall us?
As we saw it, our church was sick, and we wondered if the illness might prove terminal. Would the mold and money problems cause congregation members to seek new church homes? Would a slow and steady exodus of familiar faces eventually leave in its wake an empty building for some business to overtake? I thought of a local veterinarian that operates out of a former church on Massachusetts Street and wondered if our building might also go to the dogs.
If people bolt when things become difficult, they leave behind not only loved ones but also opportunities—chances to contribute, to grow, and to live bravely.
When Becki and I talked about this, we agreed that leaving First Baptist in such a sorry state would be like walking out on one’s marriage when the relationship became rocky and the path steep. If people bolt when things become difficult, we reasoned, they leave behind not only loved ones but also opportunities—chances to contribute, to grow, and to live bravely. They also miss a chance to work alongside God, who dwells in even the most dilapidated places of worship.
With the bones of the structure visible and the sinews exposed, I could see how a visitor to First Baptist might conclude that God had left the building long ago. After all, why would the Creator of the universe want to dwell in such decrepit conditions? If Yahweh ever came to Earth in human form, surely He would prefer to rest His head in a regal palace rather than, oh, I don’t know … a stable?
Here we part ways with God even though we claim to walk with Him. Whereas God willingly entered into the human fray, taking on flesh to walk among us, we tend to withdraw when we encounter even the mildest setbacks or disagreeable conditions. We retreat where God advances.
While there are perfectly legitimate reasons for leaving one’s church, people walk away far too quickly when places of worship lose their luster. Too often, we fail to consider how the call of James to “consider it all joy … when [we] encounter various trials” applies to the challenges our churches face (James 1:2). But what would happen if we resisted the siren song of novelty? If we considered that God might want us to remain where we are, even when those places are less than lovely? That’s why Becki and I agreed that no matter what challenges our church faced, we wanted to stay. It had become our home, its people our family. If we worshipped elsewhere, we would go only in body—our hearts would remain there.
We tend to withdraw when we encounter even the mildest setbacks or disagreeable conditions. We retreat where God advances.
My dad, a Southern Baptist minister, married us at First Baptist in 2009. In his wedding homily, he compared a marriage to a garden that needs to be lovingly tended. Even with our church’s mold problem, I found it easy to think of First Baptist as a garden, too. (Things certainly grew there, for better or worse.) We hoped that by staying, we could help tend the church garden, so to speak.
But here’s the funny thing about gardens: They always look barren in the beginning—rows of dirt that offer no hint of the growth to come. That being said, I think when we mistake the present state of a church for the body of Christ in full bloom, we are being spiritually shortsighted. Shouldn’t we instead wonder what might rise from the soil of our churches, pray about that very thing, and then reach for the spades?
As of this writing, First Baptist is mold-free and has ceilings, floors, and—best of all—members. As I’ve watched the building reclaim its beauty, I have come to appreciate an aphorism my Grandma Ruthie swore by: “Bloom where you are planted.” Sometimes nothing outshines the unsung splendor of staying put, developing deeper roots, and bursting into flower in the beautiful, messy garden of the here and now—all the while trusting that the Gardener is working the soil.
Illustration by Vincent Mahé