Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
May 6, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
As most of you know, I spent last weekend, April 27 to 29, 2012, at the Annual Meeting of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, the denomination of which we are a member, over in Pasco. While there I heard and participated in a good deal of discussion about the church in general, the local church more particularly, and small churches like ours most of all. Our two “keynoters” both addressed issues relating to local churches on several occasions. The Rev. Ben Guess, Executive Minister for Local Church Ministries of the UCC spoke, preached, and led a workshop on Christian education beyond Sunday School. You heard the sermon he gave at our closing worship on Sunday here last week. The Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Red Oak, Iowa, spoke with passion and humor about the blessings of small churches. This morning in lieu of a sermon, or as the sermon if you prefer, I want to share with you some of what I heard and some of the discernment I did around that hearing.
The common wisdom today is that the formerly mainline Protestant denominations, including the United Church of Christ, are in big trouble. In fact, most “experts” say they are dying altogether. Many people no longer refer to us as “mainline.” A more common term today is “old line.” The conventional wisdom is that people today, especially young people today, have no interest in religious institutions. They don’t want the structure of a formal church. They certainly aren’t interested in Christian doctrine. They want experiences—spiritual experiences and experiences of making a difference in the world. They live on line, and if a church, its programs, and its program materials aren’t available on line they aren’t interested. The conventional wisdom is that the formerly mainline churches have to change almost everything about themselves if they are going to attract the younger generations and survive.
We have many of the characteristics of an old line denominational church, characteristics that are supposed to make us a dinosaur. As a congregation we are not very high tech. We have a web site, and some people have found us through the web site; but we’re not on Facebook or Twitter. We don’t do PowerPoint in worship. We have a traditional church structure of officers and committees. We do Christian education (more popularly called faith formation these days) in a pretty traditional way. We have significant demographic gaps in our participating population. Although the average age of our congregation is significantly younger than it was ten years ago, we have no more than one or two people between the ages of 15 and perhaps their late 30s. Much of what I heard at our Conference’s Annual Meeting this year at least implies that churches like ours have become irrelevant in today’s world and that we’d better get with the program of the younger generations if we want to survive, not that we have much hope of surviving in the estimation of many supposed experts.
I heard all of that. I think I get all of that. And yet. And yet my experience of our congregation is so very different from what the experts at least hint that it should be. We are not dying. We are not irrelevant. You know better than I, but my sense is that our traditional worship and hymns feed our people. Many of our people have found with us community here in the church that isn’t limited to the church but which continues outside the church walls. We model safe and welcoming Christian community. We proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We proclaim a vision of peace through justice and nonviolence that the world today so desperately needs to hear and embrace. We proclaim a non-exclusive Christianity that values the religious traditions of other people and does not deny that they too have truth in them, another understanding that the world so desperately needs to learn today when claims by one group to have the only truth of God lead to terrorism and death. Mainline denominations may be dying. We are not.
In one presentation Rev. Dilley gave us a list of eight characteristics of vital small churches that big churches would do well to emulate. I won't go through all eight, but I can summarize what she said, with some development of embellishment of my own. First of all, know who you are. Have a clear identity. Know what makes you unique, then live that identity, whatever it is, with purpose and excellence. Live an identity that offers the place where God has planted you something unique, or at least unusual, something other churches in your place don’t offer, something that gives people a reason to come to you even though you may be small.
Then, know what you can do and what you can't do. No church can do everything, small churches least of all. Don't fret over what you can't do. Identify what you can do, then do what you can do really well. Being small is no excuse for mediocrity. Demand excellence from your leaders, both ordained and lay. Never accept mediocre work just because you're small or because people are volunteers. Hold everyone who works in the church, ordained and lay, to the highest ethical standards.
Most of all love God and God's people. Proclaim and share the love of Christ. Proclaim the love of Christ for all of God’s people. Be different. Proclaim the truth that God’s grace is for everyone, God’s love is for everyone. As the First Letter of John that we heard this morning says, God is love. God is love for all people. Proclaim that universal love of God. Do these things, and you will be a vital, healthy, small church.
Friends, I believe we do all of those things pretty well. We have named and claimed a clear identity that makes us different from every other church in this area. We are Open and Affirming. We welcome all. Especially we welcome those whom the Christian church has so long excluded, and which so much of the church universal still does exclude. We are like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch that we heard about in our reading from Acts. Because he was a eunuch the temple authorities in Jerusalem would never accept him. Yet when he asked Philip what was to prevent him from being baptized into the faith of Jesus Christ the answer was: Nothing. That’s our answer too to people whom the church has for far too long excluded. What is to prevent you from becoming part of this Christian community? Nothing. In Monroe and Sky Valley, we are unique in that regard. We do the things that make for a vital small church pretty well, if I do say so myself.
Does that mean we’re set? That we can rest on our laurels? Just bask in our self-proclaimed glory? Of course not. Like all churches, we face challenges. We face financial challenges, especially if we’re going to add Jane as an additional half time pastor as has been proposed. We have those gaps in our demographics that I mentioned. We have a sanctuary building that is over 100 years old that may, as much as we love it, soon be limiting our growth because of its small size. We have a fellowship hall building with classrooms that are not accessible for people with mobility limitations. We have no parking and no place to put any parking. We face the broader challenge of being a Christian church for more open minded, progressive people in a world in which most open minded, progressive people have given up on Christianity. Yes, as vital as we are, we definitely face challenges.
And for all those challenges we are alive. We are a people who love God and love one another. We are, in some ways at least, a beacon of light in a culture of darkness. So, as Paul said of his congregations, I give thanks for you continually in my prayers, for the Gospel of Jesus Christ is alive in you. We will change, we know not how, for all institutions change or they die. For now we are vital and faithful, and I do not doubt that together with me for now (and, I trust, for some time yet) and long after I'm gone you will continue to be a vital, faithful congregation of God's people. Are the mainline churches dying as the experts say? Not to judge by Monroe Congregational United Church of Christ they aren’t. Thanks be to God. Amen.