Again, the kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls; when he finds one of great value he goes and sells everythng he owns and buys it. (Matthew 13:45-46; New Jerusalem Bible)
I seem to get pearls as gifts on a fairly regular basis. (Note to those who have given me pearls: this is not a complaint.) I’ve got a pretty double-strand of creamy white freshwater pearls, some round black ones with silver and gold spacers, and some really funky ones that were brought to me from the pearl market in Beijing. I’ve been told that the Chinese ones were ridiculously inexpensive, but because the designs are so unique and beautiful (and they were gifts from people I love), they are very valuable to me. Pearls, as we know, come from oysters. I know a lot more people who would rather wear pearls than eat oysters. (The frequent assertion is they taste like snot. I’m not in the habit of eating snot, so I cannot confirm or contradict this.) But I’m convinced that an oyster is capable of producing many more pearls than meals–anything that gets into the oyster to irritate it is a potential pearl; once you eat the meat, the oyster has no further use. I don’t know how one would assess the oyster with the best potential for producing the largest number of exceptional pearls (whatever standard you are using for “exceptional”); I know that some pearls are “farmed” so they are uniform in size, shape, and color. Most of mine are kind of semi-natural–formed in the oyster, but non-toxic coloring agents are added to produce the beautiful teal and burgundy shades in the finished item. But I know three important things about pearls: The first is that they only happen whensomething irritates the oyster. Nacre is secreted to surround the piece of sand or whatever has gotten into the soft tissue, and reduce the discomfort it produces. Layer after layer is deposited on the irritant to smooth the surface so it doesn’t scratch the oyster. Secondly, the pearl has no real value or beauty if it stays in the oyster. I’ve never seen anyone wear a necklace of whole raw oysters, and I sure wouldn’t want to sit next to them on the bus on a hot day. The third important thing I know about pearls is that they have to be kept dry–pearls cannot go back into the medium in which they were formed, without losing their lustre, and eventually breaking apart.
I’ve been thinking lately about the church as an oyster-farm. It, and the people who tend it, exist principally to produce great pearls that have to leave the farm, or else suffer damage and devaluation. It’s what leaves the church (what are now called “nones”, and all of a sudden a source of worry) that gives it its value. The pearls justify the existence of the oyster farm–and those who leave justify the existence of the church.
Perhaps, instead of worrying about numerical decline, the churches should be more concerned about cultivating people to leave well. Christians who, like pearls, retain their lustre but cannot go back to the church, should be the aim–not people who stay under water inside the oyster.
Congregation was never what Jesus preached–and we should stop idolizing it. Creating pearls of great value (whether monetary or aesthetic or emotional) should be the aim of the church. But for some who have irritated the churches (and to an extent I consider myself among them), going back is difficult–we know we will be damaged, we will be devalued, if we go back into the medium that formed us.