Me, John the Baptist, and the Future of Church

We all want change. But we don’t want to change anything. Maybe all it takes is listening to the raving prophets.

‘Don’t make me get John the Baptist on you.’

I said this to a nervous clergy client. She was just on the cusp of taking a big step forward – financially and technically – with her ministry, and now she was having doubts.

‘Change is coming,’ I said to her. ‘It’s here. Don’t get cold feet now.’

To be honest, invoking John the Baptist’s name surprised even me. I know he’s Jesus’ cousin and all, but he’s my least favorite person in the Bible. Every year I have to preach about him in Advent – sometimes twice. And every year I resist.

I just don’t like him. 

Starting with his locust-eating and ending with him shouting ‘you brood of vipers’ at the faith leaders of the time, he’s not exactly what I would call ‘pastoral’. 

But here I was, calling on him in a moment of impatience. I could actually feel his frustration well up in me – though I would never yell, and eating bugs is out of the question.

My frustration was not with my client – this bold and creative ministry innovator. It was with myself, my own falling short. My own failures at translating the vision I can see of the future of church, at helping others claim their own. How do I help people change?

We all want change – But actually changing? That’s a much more dubious deal.

We want change that turns the church away from decline; change that helps us thrive in pointing the way towards God’s love. Change that transforms ours and others’ lives.

But actual change is hard. It means making different choices daily, and not being certain they’ll work. It means learning new things, which can be slow and frustrating. Actual change means messing with ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and tolerating a fair bit of chaos in the process.

Most of us want change – but we hate changing. 

Which makes me appreciate John the Baptist just a little more.

I’m no prophet, and I wouldn’t eat a bug for a million dollars. But I do get that he’s trying to tell people that things are changing whether we’re ready or not. That Jesus is about to walk right into this place and rock our world. And that’s a good thing, even if it might not feel like it right away.

‘I sometimes wish the church believed the things we actually say we believe,’ my friend Maggie Breen said the other day. ‘If we believe the hope of Jesus – that something better is actually coming – then why are we so afraid to let of go things, and try new things?’

That sounds like John the Baptist, too. Only much, much nicer.

‘People only hear you when they’re coming towards you.’

This is one of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who taught about systematic change. I realize that’s what has kept me from hearing John the Baptist – at least so far. His outward appearance makes me run the other way.

What makes me turn towards him, though, is what he’s pointing to: the light of the world. God with us, always surprising us, always bringing new life. Even now, even right here in the life of the church.

It makes me wonder if that’s all it takes. Not changing, maybe not even trying to change. Just looking, listening, hearing. Just believing that something better really is coming.

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2 Comments

  1. Jay Bruno on December 3, 2022 at 10:52 am

    Cathie,
    I love your “Don’t make me get “John the Baptist” on you!1″. Might make it into a sermon…..
    I pray you have a great holiday season!
    Peace,

    Jay

    • Father Cathie Caimano on December 3, 2022 at 12:11 pm

      Thanks, Jay! It’s the beginning of mine…

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