I recently listened to a podcast interview with a Catholic priest whose ministry focuses on young people involved in urban gangs. Many of the tools he uses derive from the recovery movement, including wisdom gleaned from Alcoholics Anonymous. He used a maxim that I’ve heard before to describe what it takes to cause someone to want to change from one kind of life to another. He said, “It takes what it takes.”
This intentionally redundant saying refers to the fact that every person’s journey is unique and the experience that provokes transformation is unpredictable. A young person gets drawn deeper into the violent, chaotic, and self-destructive habits of gangs, or someone develops a pattern of drug or alcohol abuse that becomes absolutely ruinous to mind, body, soul, and relationship. Eventually, the person reaches a point when they seem beyond any capability of returning. And then something happens that causes them to want to change, to yearn for a different life more than anything in the world. That’s the moment when the hard work of recovery begins.
What event sparks such a yearning, awareness, or awakening? “It takes what it takes.” For one person it is reaching rock bottom, crashing and burning in way that costs them their home or family. For another it is falling in love with someone, the birth of a child, becoming tired of being tired. For another it is a near-death experience, or the critical illness of a loved one.
A wrecked marriage, a lost job, an arrest—these events can stimulate a yearning for new life. But so can holding a newborn baby, discovering the spiritual life, a powerful and penetrating piece of music. In that moment, a person is struck by grace, and an opening occurs.
The priest went on to say that he does not try to persuade young people to leave gangs just as he has learned not to try to persuade an addict to put down a syringe or an alcoholic to set aside a bottle. “I’m not the one who saves people; God does that,” he says. “I simply point to the door and say, ‘I believe that if you go through that door you will live a happier life.’” The priest looks for people who are ready to change. When someone is ready to walk away from their old life and step into a new way, the priest and his team are ready to help.
I’m reminded of the prodigal son who insistently and violently rebels against his father. The scripture describes in simple and suggestive terms that, some months later while wallowing with the pigs, “he came to himself.”
People come to themselves through varied experiences. Zacchaeus needed Jesus to dine at his house while everyone else rejected him; the woman at the well required a penetratingly true conversation with a stranger; the paralyzed man beside the pool needed confrontation about his true desires for healing; a rich man needed the nightmare reminder of life without God to notice his neglect of Lazarus at the doorstep; the bleeding woman needed a touch of grace from Jesus.
How do we come to ourselves? How does God’s grace break through? It takes what it takes.
I’ve discovered that the same is true for congregations that have experienced years of uninterrupted decline. Some continue on the path of growing older and weaker with each decade. But others turn around. They wake up. They come to themselves. They discover and embrace new life. In each case, the primary vision, spiritual energy, leadership, and motivation come from the local congregation rather than from the conference or the denomination.
The conference or bishop or superintendent cannot talk a congregation into new life. The congregation has to decide it wants a different future. The congregation willingly invests the time and hard work to make it happen. The conference staff and many other clergy and lay colleagues can provide consultation, help, support, and a wide range of tools once a congregation decides to change, but change cannot come from the outside.
Like the priest in the story above, the conference can only point to the door and say, “when you are ready to walk away from your old ways, I will help you. I think you will be happier going through that door rather than remaining where you are.”
What’s the turning-point event that causes a congregation to want to change? It takes what it takes. A tornado that destroys the old building, the arrival of a new pastor, the death of a long-time patriarch or matriarch of the congregation, a severe financial challenge, a financial windfall, the loss of jobs in a community, the arrival of new families, a significant shift in the demographics of the neighborhood, the presence of children, the success of a mission initiative—any and all of these have been the occasion and inspiration for renewal in churches. It takes what it takes. And it takes openness to God’s spirit to help us change.
What has it taken for your congregation? What will it take to draw you toward a new and more hopeful future?
Yours in Christ,