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"On our Congregational Goal" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - January 28, 2018

posted Feb 5, 2018, 9:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every year I make a New Year’s resolution.  Mostly, it goes badly.  And soon into the year I realize I’ll never manage to achieve my goal.


This year, I decided to try something different.  Instead of aiming high, with a resolution for radical change or trying some dramatically new direction in my life, I would aim low.  Forget aspirational goals, I told myself: try achievable.


So as New Year’s approached, I looked around the house for a goal I could realistically achieve.  A “done in a day” project.  Even better, a “done by brunch” project.


I came up with the perfect idea: cleaning out the fridge.  First, it needed to be done; one of those cleaning tasks that I tend to put off to next time; every time.  Second, I could actually do it.  And I could move into 2018 having already accomplished my goal for the year!  Perfect.


It started off well; I was nearly done even, when I started to wash the glass shelf in the fridge.  I carefully lifted it out of the fridge and took it over to the sink, gingerly placing it in.  As I started to wipe it down, the shelf exploded into a thousand pieces, sending bits of glass all the way into the family room.  It looked like a hail storm had struck my kitchen.  None of the glass bits were sharp - this was safety glass - but the mess went everywhere.  I stood at the sink, surrounded by my disaster of a resolution, thinking, “This is a bad omen.”


I’m still finding little bits of glass - on top of the microwave, on the window frame, under the stove.  So much for done by brunch.  Sometimes, no matter if our goal is aspirational or achievable, we fail.


Our congregation set an aspirational goal three years ago.  We wanted to grow the size of our worshipping community - the people gathered on Sunday morning for worship - by 5% each year.  But, despite our efforts, we did not achieve our goal.


We adopted this goal against a backdrop of churches shrinking around the country.  The Pew Research Center began documenting this phenomenon over the last decade, christening it the “rise of the nones,” as in the rise of those who mark ‘none of the above’ when asked about their religious affiliation.  The “nones” represent the fastest growing segment of the spiritual landscape in America, with one-fifth of adults now identifying with no religious tradition, a trend led by the one-third of Millennials who think of themselves as “none of the aboves.”  Our goal called us to grow our worshiping community at a time when more and more people were opting out of spiritual traditions.


We knew achieving this goal would require us to learn and adapt in new ways.  Several leaders in our congregation attended workshops at the Wisconsin Conference on how to grow churches.  The retreat leader explained that most churches look like old castles - foreboding, imposing, and a bit mysterious.  It’s not at all clear what goes on inside the castle.  And so, the retreat leader explained, growing our church would require getting outside the castle: making new friends in our neighborhoods, holding events out in the community, and most especially, inviting people to join us in the castle for worship.


Three years later, I remain convinced that the basic lesson remains true: to grow our congregation, we need to get outside the castle.  A number of things proved successful: for instance, last Spring we organized a talk by Dr. Erin Winkler of UWM at the Shorewood Library on “How Children Learn about Race.”  Almost everyone who came shared our values but didn’t belong to our congregation.  The event got us outside the castle.  We’re holding more of our programing and events in ways designed to engage people beyond our own membership.


And yet we clearly found a place of struggle: inviting friends to church.  I know some of you have invited friends to worship.  But many more have told me how uncomfortable this makes them feel.  Or how few people they know are looking for a church.  While we didn’t reach our goal; I think our need to learn how to invite friends remains a clear growing edge of our congregation.


But something else became clear over the last three years.  As mentioned in the annual report, much of the decline in our worship attendance can actually be traced to the smaller size of our aging households: whereas five years ago in a household of two older adults, we now have a widow; or five years ago in a household of four people, now the kids are off to college.  In years past we balanced these changes in our households by incorporating young couples.  We did better than most congregations in attracting Generation X.  But now we’re missing millennials; people in their twenties to mid-thirties remains our biggest challenge to recruit.  The question of how we connect with millennials and the generation after them will remain long after we move on from this recent goal.


How should we respond to our failure to achieve our goal?  How should we respond to the ongoing challenges we face?  While these sound like practical questions, they really get at the heart of who we are spiritually.  The response to failure is a spiritual matter.  It tests our capacity for hope.  And yet, as people of faith, we are people of hope; we hope in things not yet seen.


This weekend our sisters and brothers in the Jewish faith gathered to celebrate the Crossing of the Red Sea.  As you may recall, in that story the slaves of Egypt escaped.  But the army of Pharaoh pursued them right up to the Red Sea.  Caught between the soldiers and the sea, Moses’ experiment in freedom seemed like a failure.  And then, unexpectedly, the people found a way through the sea; they escaped while the pursuing soldiers perished.


The prophet Isaiah, at a desperate time that equaled the peril faced beside the sea, heard God say,

“Thus says the Lord,

  who makes a way in the sea,

  a path in the mighty waters,

I am about to do a new thing;

  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

  and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43)


Now our situation is nothing like that at the Red Sea or faced by Isaiah; but remembering them, we’re meant to hope, to have faith God will find a way out of no way.  I realize this might sound like a pollyanna response.  So let me say something about the reasons for my hope.


First, I know the polling of public opinion signals major challenges for churches.  But really, after the 2016 election, who believes polls?


Honestly, the demographic trends facing us are sobering.  But things can change unexpectedly.  I often think of a quote from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to a friend in 1822 with the boast, “There is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian!”  Unitarianism was a fast growing spiritual tradition when he made this boast; but he failed to foresee Joseph Smith and the Mormons, the Great Awakening, the Social Gospel Movement, Pentecostalism, the rise of the Black Church, the arrival of Catholics.


But perhaps more to the point, I think of the fate of independent bookstores.  Years ago it seemed that the rise of Amazon might close every brick-and-mortar bookstore.  And yet, as Harvard Business School recently reported, independent bookstores are growing, with the total number of stores increasing 35% since the Great Recession.  Ryan Raffaelli studied what happened and found three factors key to the growth of independent bookstores: community, curation, and convening.  Independent bookstores provided community for their customers.  They curated books: not just recommending best sellers but getting to know people well enough to recommend the odd book and the overlooked title.  And finally, the bookstores brought people together for book clubs and game nights and public conversations, acting as a convening hub of conversation and relationships.  Plenty of people wrote the obituary of bookstores; but there are now more independent stores than there were ten years ago.


In the lead up to adopting our goal, church leaders talked about our congregation as a “boutique” size congregation.  We can do some things very well, but we’re not able to do everything.  And so we’re more like an independent bookstore than we are like a Barnes and Noble.  We may not have the largest church school, but we have one where the adults will know your child’s name.  And, like an independent bookstore, we can focus on community, curating, and convening.


I know the sobering statistics about Christianity can make it feel like a dark time.  It could make us feel depressed, as if the church were in the tomb.  But, as a friend recently pointed out to me, a womb can be as dark as tomb.  I think our best days are yet to come; we are in the womb of a moment of change, hoping for what we have not yet seen, worshiping a God who is about to do new things.


And my hope comes from the Gospel.  I believe the message of the Gospel matters for us, for our community, for our world.


Today we heard again the same gospel reading that we heard last week.  This was not a typo.  Rather, I heard another message in the Gospel that I had to bring to you.  And it concerns the identity of the four disciples Jesus called: Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  Those names have become so familiar to our ears that we miss how they might have sounded in Jesus’ day.  Three of these names sounded very Jewish: Peter, James, and John.  But the name Andrew came from Greek, a foreign name.  To the first people hearing the Gospel it sounded like Jesus called as his disciples Peter, James, John, and Farrokh.  From the very beginning, the message of Jesus brought people together across lines of identity, ethnicity, and politics.


I have hope for our future because I know we’re doing Gospel work when we talk about racial justice.  We’re doing Gospel work when we look at issues of bias and prejudice that keep us from living as the community Jesus calls us to be.


This has always been hard work, something Paul’s letter well captures.  We might not relate to the specific of the dilemma Paul faced: what to do about food sacrificed in pagan temples.  But we can relate to the community conflict.  Some people reasoned that since the pagan gods were not real than the food from their temples was acceptable to eat.  This position particularly mattered to the wealthy, for they were the ones invited out to dine at the houses of wealthy pagans; the wealthy defended their right to eat pagan meat.  The working class were too poor to afford meat; they judged the wealthy for eating food from pagan temples.


Instead of engaging in a logical debate about right and wrong, Paul moved the conservation to ethics.  He said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  So he set aside the logical arguments to focus on what his neighbors needed.  If eating meat troubled the conscience of one of his fellow church members, he’d rather not eat meat than cause them to lose faith.


Now the point is not that we must give up bacon to grow the church.  But rather, living into the diverse and beloved community of Jesus requires us to love boldly.  We don’t need to win logical arguments; we need to learn to love profoundly, broadly, deeply.  And to say to our friends outside this church, “Would you join me in a community of love that embraces diversity?”


We did not reach our three year goal, but I remain hopeful because I know we’re striving for the Gospel.


This New Year’s Day, after cleaning up, I sat down to read a book about Julia Child, my gourmand inspiration.  Julia famously took classes from the Cordon Bleu Institute in Paris.  But I hadn’t known before: she completely failed her final exams.  She did not succeed at first, but persevered.  Imagine what the world would have lost if she stopped at that first disappointment!


Our three year congregational goal did not work out as planned, but I remain convinced there is yet more light and truth to break forth in God’s beloved community.  Alleluia and Amen.




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