Scripture Readings for a Church in Trouble

By Judy Paulsen
Judy Wycliff May3 (42 of 42) rs

Over the past few weeks I have had several long conversations with pastors who seem dangerously close to burn-out. They’re worried because some 25 to 30 percent of their congregations haven’t returned to church following the easing of pandemic restrictions. They’re worried that they might have to lay off staff. They’re working harder than ever, trying their best to minister to both gathered and online flocks, but with precious little to show for it. They’re worried, and they’re dog-tired.

All the while, damning scandals and serious critique of churches seem to be everywhere, as denominations have been found complicit in the horrors of residential schools, and the sexual abuse of their own members. The moral failures of high-profile pastors have been exposed with alarming regularity in mainstream newspapers. More church buildings are being sold and repurposed as ambiance-filled condos, wine stores, and coffee shops.

Numbers in the pews are down. Giving is down. Deferred maintenance is up, as are stress levels among church treasurers, Board members, and pastors. In short, many churches in North America seem to be in real trouble.

With all this on my mind I headed to church last Sunday hoping for some reprieve from all this negativity. Perhaps the Scripture readings would provide the emotional boost I was so hungry for.

Not a chance.

The first reading was Lamentations 1:1-6. Here is a sampling:

How deserted lies the city,

Once so full of people.

How like a widow is she,

Who once was great among the nations!

She who was queen among the provinces

Has now become a slave. . . . .

The roads to Zion mourn,

For no one comes to her appointed feasts,

All her gateways are desolate,

Her priests groan,

Her maidens grieve,

And she is in bitter anguish.

Next came the psalm appointed for the day. Psalm 137. No easy comfort there either.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars

We hung our harps,

For there our captors asked us for songs,

Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

They said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

While in a foreign land?

Looking to the New Testament readings, I was sure the tone would be more positive.

The Epistle reading was taken from the second letter to Timothy (1:1–14). It’s a letter written from a prison, in which the experienced pastor and missionary, Paul, is encouraging Timothy to join him “in suffering for the gospel.” He charges Timothy “not to be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner.” It is a letter that seems to reveal Paul’s fears that key truths about Jesus will be lost, that standards for holy living will drop, that sound teaching and faith itself is at risk.

Finally, the Gospel reading. Surely here there would be some positive reinforcement. 

But no. The reading was Luke 17:5–10, in which the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. (Ever felt like that?) Jesus replies, somewhat curiously, with the admonition that if they even had faith as small as a mustard seed, they could do amazing things. He then tops up the strangeness-factor by reminding them that they ought to recognize that they are unworthy servants who should just get on with doing their duty.

Really, Lord? These are the readings you give us in this time of trouble?


“Yes,” he answered.  “These are the readings for a Church in trouble.”

“These are the readings that remind you, Church, that My People have repeatedly had the things that they thought were essential, stripped away.

“These are the readings that remind you, Church, that you are called not to a life of ease, but a life of service and suffering. 

“These are the readings that remind you, Church, that holy living and sound teaching matter greatly.

“These are the readings that point not to your need for more faith, but your need for a deeper love that gives rise to faithfulness and obedience.

“These are the readings that ultimately point not to your best strategic plans, Church, but to my grace shown to the world in Christ Jesus.”


When I looked again at the Epistle reading, I saw it. Hidden amidst the struggle of a prison letter, was the following gem:

“This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. This is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

Christ Jesus is able. He has conquered death. He has brought life and immortality to light. He is trustworthy.

This is the seed of hope, which the Church is called first to hear, and then proclaim. These remain our two tasks; to hear and proclaim our hope in Christ Jesus, in these troubled, anxious, grace-filled times.