Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 1: 4 – 20; Hebrews 10: 11 – 14 (15 – 18) 19 – 25; and Mark 13: 1- 8.
I had several things cross my desk this week as I was preparing these thoughts. First, my wife sent me some pictures of a church that had been converted into a personal home. (http://forwardon.com/view.php?e=Id12473ba76d0865e8&type=latest&time=all)
Then I read the report that the Connectional table of the United Methodist Church is going forward with a plan to study the national and regional agencies of the denomination in order to reinvigorate the denomination. (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=7658283)
Finally, I read Donald Haynes column about ways to think about the small membership church. (http://www.umportal.org/main/article.asp?id=6081),
The first of these “notes” was somewhat humorous in that it reminded me of the setting for “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie. But it also struck a chord about how we see God’s House, our church.
There is no doubt that the United Methodist Church is dying physically, if not spiritually. Dr. Haynes notes that the United Methodist Church is 19 years older than the general population. The other numbers that he mentions don’t bode well for the church as well.
It takes an average attendance of 150 to support a church in today’s economy. He doesn’t go into the details but one can see that what he is saying is that many of the churches in the denomination do not have these kinds of numbers. From my own experience as a lay speaker in this district, I know of no church, including my own, that has that type of attendance. With the costs of health insurance and pensions rising, the crisis of the dying church is also fiscal.
He does offer a variety of options that, in part, match some of my thoughts about what we can and cannot do. My thoughts came from the experiences as a lay speaker in a variety of places and settings; Dr. Haynes pointed out that many of the models for smaller churches have been studied in the past.
But these models have been cast aside because the current leadership of the denomination is not familiar with small churches. How could they? To get to a point of leadership, pastors have to rise through the ranks. Though they may have started at a small church once a long time ago, they moved up to medium-sized and larger churches in order to take on the administrative roles they now have. Second, most pastors probably don’t like the small church. It is hard working at a church far away from the excitement of the ministry, dealing with personalities and situations that are never covered in the academic world. The only hope that many small church pastors have is that they can do a reasonably decent job and then get moved up to a bigger church so that they can get a pay raise.
Finally, the parishioners of the small churches don’t like the models because the models require that they share their pastor with another church, a church with whom the members haven’t spoken civilly with the members from the other church in years. Besides, there is glamour to having one’s own pastor. He or she is “our” pastor and he or she will do what we want them to do; yea, right!
This makes the announcement of a new study to reinvigorate the denomination, in my mind, questionable. We have studied the problem from a variety of angles and multiple solutions have been offered. The denomination has made an honest effort to let society know that it is alive when the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” advertisements were first run, they ran at 2 in the morning. How many people watched those ads? How many people would have responded to an ad about open doors at a time when the doors were really shut?
I think that the Gospel reading for today, a reading in which Mark has recorded Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple, is highly appropriate in light of the Council report and Dr. Haynes comments. Now, we know that Mark wrote this Gospel after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A. D. but we cannot be certain whether Mark recorded Jesus’ words or if he simply modified the story to fit the situation. Actually, I don’t think it matters.
The destruction of the Temple, prophesized or not, changed the nature of Judaism. The Jews could no longer see the Temple as God’s House/Home and it must have devastated them. It forced a radical rethinking of the nature of the religion. The same can be said for the early Christian church.
I am not enough of a theologian or a historian to understand how the destruction of the Temple affected the early Christian church. I do know that they had a hard beginning. Jewish authorities didn’t like them; Roman authorities didn’t like them. There were even arguments between Christians as to whether one had to be a Jew before they could be a follower of Christ or whether anyone could follow Christ. And there was the argument developing, if I understand the chronology of the writings of the New Testament, about which was more important, faith or good works.
But when we hear about the pending demise of the church and the denomination, for which we do not need some expensive survey to tell us as we see it every Sunday in our church, we are hearing the words of Jesus to his disciples along the road to Jerusalem, prophesying our own doom.
When we hear discussions about big churches and small churches, of churches that can carry the load and churches that are too weak to do so, we are hearing the Old Testament reading for today. Elkanah had two wives, Penninah and Hannah. Penninah was the “good” wife, able to give Elkanah the sons that society demanded; Hannah was barren and, in society’s eyes, a “bad” wife.
The good churches are those which can give the conference the resources needed to survive; the bad churches don’t have the resources or perhaps the capability to provide the resources. But there the story changes; in today’s story, the denomination elders seem to want to get rid of the unproductive churches. In the Old Testament, Elkanah gave Hannah a double portion of his love. And Hannah prayed to God that she would be able to return the blessing. And from this story came Samuel and a new ministry in Israel.
We do not need another study. First, it is a waste of money; second, it won’t tell us anything that we don’t already know. We don’t need to change our worship services by offering new music or having preachers who are “hip”. Those are superficial changes. The message of the Gospel is a powerful message of hope and renewal; amidst the ruin of the Temple, people heard a message of hope. But it required a new thinking.
When I started thinking about this piece, I had a different title in mind. But, as many things go, the title didn’t seem to fit. And as I was writing, I was reminded of a phrase from a Jimmy Buffet song, “changes in attitude, changes in latitude.” I don’t know if we need a change in latitude as much as we need a change in attitude.
So hear the words of the writer of Hebrews telling us that the sacrifices of the priests were of no value and that what was needed was faith offered by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The writer of Hebrews speaks to me of a new way of thinking.
We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that threatens people with doom and destruction for they already know that. We will not find this new way of thinking in a message that excludes and casts out people; we seem to think that we are the only ones who can read the Gospel message. Those whom we cast aside and exclude from the church can read the Gospel and they see the hypocrisy in our message. That’s why they are leaving the church; that’s why they aren’t coming to church.
We don’t need new forms of music that will show the youth of this country how modern the church is. If the music doesn’t move you, it doesn’t matter how it is played. And the music won’t move you unless it echoes the message of hope and promise.
What is needed in today’s church is not marketing skills but story-telling skills. We need to tell the story, the true story. We need to put the story out there for the people. And if that means supporting the small church because that is where the people are, so be it. The bottom line for any church will always be the souls that are saved and come to Christ and that is a number that can never be determined in the present time. When you look at a financial bottom line as a measure of success, you miss the point.
We need a change in attitude. I have seen it occur. I have seen churches that were down and about to die change their attitude and put the work of the church before the finances of the church. And guess what, those churches grew. I have seen churches put the finances of the church before the work of the church and those churches died. It is and will always be about the attitude of the people.
We need a change in latitude, a change in attitude. And it is possible. It is that change that occurs when you come to the altar rail and kneel there and open your heart to the Grace offered to you by Christ. It is that change that occurs when you say to God that you will accept the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and you will work to see that God is present in this world, even when you leave God’s House.
Changes in latitude, changes in attitude should be more than a phrase in a song; it should be the mantra of a church, be it local or denominational, that plans on living into the next century.