This was a sermon that I gave for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost on November 16, 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).
When I began thinking about this sermon I was worried about two things. The first was last Thursday’s Church Conference; the other is the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh this spring.
Every four years, the General Conference meets. This is the meeting at which decisions are literally “carved in stone.” For it is from the General Conference that the contents of The Book of Discipline, the rulebook and guidelines for the operation of the church, are decided. Sometimes the decisions made are not the best (such as the decision several years ago to remove the title “Local Lay Pastor” from the lexicon of the church; this decision has come to hurt many small churches and why my particular title is “Pastoral Assistant to the District Superintendent.”) Many times, no decisions are made and the rules that govern the church remain essentially the same as first written down by John Wesley in his “Articles of Religion”.
Like any document, it is the meaning of what John Wesley wrote at the beginning of this church that will be the focus of the upcoming General Conference. Like the other denominations in this country, there have been discussions and dissension among the members as to the exact meaning of what John Wesley wrote. And when compared to the General Conference held in Cleveland in 2000, which many think was contentious and divisive in its own right, this coming General Conference may very well destroy the unity of the United Methodist Church. I hope that I am wrong in my thought about this but I am not alone in this thought; there are others nationally who feel the same.
It is the nature of the church in the coming years that I am most worried about. I must admit that my fears about Pittsburgh are small in comparison to what I feared might have been the result of last Thursday’s Church Conference.
I do not pick the readings that we constitute the lectionary but it is somewhat apropos that our Gospel reading for today is the particular passage from Mark. For Mark writes “Many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am he,” and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of war, do not be alarmed. Such things must come happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.(1) It may be that what others and I fear to be the rumors of war are nothing but the birth pangs. And what we fear is the death of the United Methodist Church is actual its rebirth and revitalization. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.
Still, I left last Thursday meeting feeling that this church has a better understanding of the problems it faces and an even better understanding that it must come up with a solution for solving those problems. It may be a struggle but if we focus on being a United Methodist Church and what that means, especially in a time when people are seeking for answers in a troubling world, it will be a victorious struggle. And I think that is the clue. We must remain faithful to what Methodism was, is and will be in the future. The question is a matter of how to accomplish this.
Lyle Schaller, a noted consultant on the issue of church development, tells us that the number of churches with average worship attendance (not membership) less than 100 actually increased during the period 1972 to 2001. This contrary to the plans and expectations that such churches would close.
During the same period the number of congregations reporting an average attendance between 100 and 199 decreased. And the number of congregations with average worship attendance over 200 remained essentially constant during the same period. (2)
That information raises several questions. First, what will be perceived as a normal sized United Methodist Congregation in 21st century? Since 1970, the median size for average worship has dropped from 67 to 55 with 72 percent of all congregations averaging less that 100 or fewer. This is contrast in the national trend which show that a disproportionately large number of churchgoers born after 1960 worship in large churches.
Second, how large must a congregation be in order to attract, afford, challenge, and retain a full-time and fully credentialed pastor? In the 1930’s a church with an average worship attendance of 45 or more was able to have a full-time, fully credentialed pastor. In the 1950s it took an average attendance of between 75 and 80. Today, the number is between 125 and 135. Fewer than one in four United Methodist churches exceed 125 in their average worship attendance.
Third, does the sermon have to be delivered by a live preacher in the room? It appears that the traditional worship service with the pastor preaching live before the congregation is fast disappearing. Many congregations have opted for other methods of presentation, including but not limited to obtaining videotapes of other pastors. This in part is due to the fact that many of the post 1950 baby boomers and their children are more accustomed to projected visual imagery. There is also an increasing affirmation that the laity should be responsible for many of the tasks long given to the pastor and clergy: worship leader, administrator, and visionary leader.
This has lead to the thought that smaller individual churches are to be replaced by big “mega-churches” with many small satellite churches obtaining many of their resources from the big church.
Now, I happen to believe in small churches. The largest church, in terms of membership, that I was ever a member of was St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN. It had 900 members and a rather healthy worship attendance on Sunday. Though a relatively large church, it was still small enough that you could speak to the senior pastor without difficulty and he knew who you were. The Sunday before I joined St. Luke’s they were looking for me because I had expressed an interested in joining. They were interested in me as much as I was interested in them.
But small churches or even moderately sized churches are no longer the norm or the model. And before you begin to think of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church as a small church, consider that we have 90 members. That makes one of the medium sized churches in this country. But those type churches are not the models one sees for church building and church growth.
It is churches like Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS as their models. These churches are what are popularly known as “mega-churches”. Willow Creek is, I believe, the largest church in the country. In the case of the Church of the Resurrection, they have five services in their sanctuary on a weekend and the average attendance for the five combined services is over 11,000. Personally, I do not see how one can achieve any kind of meaningful relationship with Christ in a setting so large. But it is churches like these to whom every one looks as example successful models of church development.
This leads to the final question: Will the United Methodist Church affirm this new norm? Mr. Schaller does not give a direct answer to this question but indicates that the combination of modern technology and the affirmation of the ministry of the laity have changed the nature of American Protestantism. Combined with the decreasing number of new clergy every year, the future of the smaller church is in doubt.
Churches such as the Church of the Resurrection and Willow Creek make heavy use of the various forms of media and various forms worship services. In the case of the Church of the Resurrection, they have a coffee shop service on Sunday morning that has to be very informal. I don’t know if they have very formal services at which they hold communion. They use the Internet. In visiting their website the other day, I could have watched the previous week’s sermon. Willow Creek gives or rents the videotapes of their senior pastor’s sermons to other churches that might not be able to afford a full time pastor.
But I wonder how in such a large setting one comes to find Christ. The answer you see is that within the scope of the mega-church are many small or mini-churches. When you come to a church like that, they find out what you are interested in and get you in a group with similar interests. As one pastor noted, if they couldn’t find a group for you, they would make a group for you.
The reasons that many come to these churches are that they are in fact responsive to the needs of the congregation. They feel accepted and wanted and they find things to do in the church. It is the reason that many of the old-line denomination churches have failed. They are like the priests described in the reading from Hebrews for today, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” (3)
The sacrifices made by the priests of Jesus day could not accomplish what they were supposed to, so they could not remove sin. And since they could not remove sin they had to be repeated. But being repeated did not do any good. It was only the sacrifice of Jesus that could accomplish what sacrifices was supposed to do.
That is why so much emphasis is placed on things like new forms of worship or more modern music. If churches cling to the same forms of service, they quickly become worn out. I use a particular order of service because I am comfortable with it, as I am sure that many of you are but I try to vary things as much as possible. And I would use other forms of worship if the resources were available.
Many churches are experimenting with less formal church worship. These are informal services, held not in a sanctuary or even in a church but in less formal settings. Again, I am not against this idea. The first services I ever put together were held under pine trees on the east slope of the Rockies. I cannot think anything less formal that being on the Front Range on an autumn Sunday. You have even heard me express the idea of having a service out on the lawn of the church, though I think it would be a good idea if we waited until spring before doing anything like that.
Many of the so-called “experts” will say that you need newer music or a more varied instrumentation to bring in the generation commonly called the seekers. And I am not against the concept. What I am against is the imposition of a thought without concerning what is involved. I have found that much of what is considered Christian music today does not give me the same feeling that I get from traditional music. Maybe others find hope and salvation in the music; I cannot. The music that we sing must life us up, not simply make us feel good. The hymns that John and Charles Wesley wrote gave hope and joy to the poor and socially disadvantaged. The same hope and joy must be in the modern songs as well and I am not sure that it is there. Besides not all the songs we sing are that old. And besides, any song played poorly will do nothing to inspire people. If I am wrong, I will change my mind.
And finally I look at the services that are offered in these more modern churches. When I put together the services for my Boy Scout troop in Colorado, I had a cross. The cross was and still remains the centerpiece of worship, at least for me. It is the cross that reminds us that Christ’s sacrifice had meaning. It is the cross that holds meaning for all that we say and do. But in these new, seeker-sensitive services, there is no cross, there is no reminder that the Gospel is more than words.
William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and a major author in Methodism, noted that he preached at a church that tried to make its service seeker sensitive. Such services remove most of the historic Christian metaphors and images. The music, as Dr. Willimon report, was “me, my and mine.”(4) Seekers are the generation that we need to reach out to in this day and age but if we do it with slick marketing techniques, we will fail. We must constantly remember that what people are seeking is Christ and if we take Christ out of the picture, we cannot find what we are seeking.
Churches today are like the wives of Elkanah, Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had many sons and daughters while Hannah was barren. Peninnah took every opportunity to remind Hannah that she, Peninnah, was a success as a wife while Hannah was not. We hear in today’s Old Testament reading that Peninnah’s constant taunting was driving Hannah to depression. But through it all, Hannah held steadfast to her faith in God.
Because of her steadfast and constant faith, God rewarded her with a child, a child we came to know as Samuel. We are reminded constantly that it by our faith that we will be rewarded. If we feel that we must be like others who have bigger congregations in order to survive, if we feel that we must somehow water down the Gospel message, then we will simply repeat many of the mistakes made throughout history.
The Gospel message cannot be pared down to something that fits on a bumper sticker. The Gospel is meant to transform us, not protect us. Unfortunately, this is not the message of many of these big churches. With the cross, without the reason, the message presented is sugar coated and self-serving. People come to these services because they are not required to do much more than that.
The Gospel message is to be shared, not hoarded, and we must work to find ways to share it. We definitely need to reach out, both to our “lost” members and to the newcomers to the community. We must find ways to work with those whom we have worked with in the past rather than in competition with them. And today we have a chance to begin those efforts.
We have a potentially new organist but for her ministry to be a part of ours, I think we need to change the time of worship. If we move our worship service back at least 15 minutes and perhaps 30 minutes, this will give the candidate a chance to get here without rushing or without short changing the church for which she currently plays. And if we move the start of our worship service back, this gives us a chance to have a Sunday school program that does not interfere with the worship service.
We have a number of youth that would and should be confirmed and I will be glad to do that. For me to do so requires a change in the time for Sunday school. The opportunities are present; the decision to do so must be made.
The decisions that we make, the choices that we make are based on why we are here today. You are here because you know from your own experience that great things can happen, that you can find what you are seeking, the comfort and solace found through the Holy Spirit. You found the Holy Spirit in a church like Tompkins Corners and you want to make sure others do.
But if you don’t, and it has to be you individually and with the other members of this church, then it may not get done. I will do my part but there is only so much that I can do.
When I teach, one of the tasks that must be addressed at the beginning of the course is the grading system. I tell my students that I prefer the pass-fail approach since it is a better system than the one under which I felt I was getting my doctorate. I always said that the grading scheme for my doctorate was life or death. If I got my doctorate I had life; if I did not get my doctorate, my family would kill me.
As the congregation of this church, you have the same two churches. How shall this congregation work to bring the Holy Spirit to the people of Putnam Valley? In doing so, the church and its members will find life; in failing to do so, the church and its members will find death. The challenge before the congregation is to find ways to make the right choice.
(1) Mark 13: 5 – 8
(2) “What Should Be the Norm?”, Lyle Schaller, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003.
(3) Hebrews 10: 11
(4) “It’s Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive When You Work for Jesus”, William H. Willimon, Circuit Rider, September/October 2003