Losing Your Life
Several years ago now I attended a conference called “The church we can see from here.” And at that conference, we discussed what is happening in our churches. Mostly the conversation focused on the general fear that seems to be permeating our churches about decline and closures. For those who aren’t aware, the Church, big C, across denominations, is shrinking at an alarming rate. Statistics from the Presbyterian News Service in Louisville indicate that in 2014, membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fell by 92,000 members. When we expand that to look at other denominations, the stats are similar. 20 churches a day closed in the United States last year. 20 churches a DAY. This does not include congregations that changed denominational affiliation. This is all congregations who closed because they simply could no longer afford to stay open. From an article written by the Presbyterian News Service in March of this year, we learn that since 2012, the U.S. dropped 7.5 million more Americans who are no longer active in religion. Over a third of Americans (35 percent) currently never attend a worship service (other than weddings and funerals). Financially this translated into $110 Million less in giving just to the Presbyterian Church in 2014 than what had been given in 2013. These are scary numbers. This is a scary reality. And it doesn’t give too much comfort to know that this is not only true in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.. Knowing that all of the denominations are going through this doesn’t help with the general fear. The Christian Church is on the decline in the United States.
These facts can be depressing. And many of us who love our church, who love our God, who love Jesus and are faith filled people often find ourselves asking that hard question, “why?” again and again. Article after article is written in answer to that question, and each gives a different answer. We can find ourselves lost in the despair of this news. Churches typically tend to respond to these declines in one of two ways. Many move into a survival mode, in which they begin to shut down every program that actually has the chance to reach out to folks because they are afraid of going bankrupt. Others throw up their hands in despair, pass the buck to others in the church, bury their heads and choose not to deal with it.
Are either of these responses what Jesus calls us to do? I’m not asking what your heart or mind, your reason or your fear ask from you. What does Jesus call us to do in the face of these numbers, these statistics and in the face of our own fear?
I want to tell you the story of a small congregation that faced these same challenges. I shared this story with our elders last month, but it is an important story for all of us, I believe. This particular congregation struggled to stay alive, they cut staff, they cut programs, and instead of growing, of course, without their staff and programs their decline moved ever faster. The church was located in a quickly changing urban community. While the few members of the church were older and white, the neighborhood had become more and more inhabited by people of color and younger families. It was a distressed neighborhood and gangs were active in the area. The church members loved their church, but they also feared even coming to the building for their own safety. Finally, this small church reached the point where it could only really claim about 10 elderly members, and they realized they just could not keep their doors open any longer. But as they met and discussed the dissolution of the church, one of these faithful older members said, “Okay, we have surrendered. We choose to give up the life of our institution. But we will not do it for no purpose. With the last money, and last energy we have, let’s serve this community with everything we have left. Let’s truly give up our lives in order that the community might live.” They began studies about gangs in the community and how other areas had dealt with them. And after much prayer and research, they went to the school, asking for the names of troubled kids who could be part of a program that paired one of these elderly members of the church with a gang member. They sold their idea to the school and these pairs were formed. At first there was great fear on one side (the side of the church members), and great anger and boredom on the part of the kids. But an amazing thing happened through their time together. They got to know one another. And these elderly folk gave these gang members the opportunity to serve them, to care for them, to help them with their grocery shopping and cleaning. In exchange they helped these young people with their homework, with their studies, with tough decisions, presenting a different morality and a different vision of what their lives could be. They believed in these young people, which in itself changed lives. Mostly, they befriended these young people. Can you guess the result?
These young people began to come to their church, and they brought their parents with them. The church began to grow. It is now self-sustaining. A church of several hundred faithful, committed, loving and dedicated Christians. It is not a mega-church. But it is a church that continues to do this ministry to the gangs, continues to reach out, a church that is relevant in the community and is doing the ministry of our God in the world.
The gospels tell us that the disciples who joined Jesus left everything they had to follow Jesus. Everything. But I would say that today it is often the most faithful who find it hard to leave certain things, to give up certain things, in following Jesus. Are we willing to take risks with our safety? Are we willing to give up some time to spend studying our community and identifying the greatest needs around us? Are we willing to give up our fixed vision of what church must be or even should be? Are we willing to give up the institution of the church as we know it in order to see what new thing God might be doing in the world and how we might become a part of it? Are we willing to give all that we might receive the promise of new life?
That may not sound like good news to you. But I tell you, there are always different ways of looking at things. One of the ways of looking at church decline is to see it as a kick in the pants, encouraging us to get out of our comfort zones and really look at what God is calling us to do. In the 50s, new people would wander into congregations and we did not need to go out to them. But that is not the case now. We are no longer sought out “country club” type communities. People don’t come to church anymore simply because it is what everyone does. Instead, when people choose to come to church it is because they are looking for something real. They are coming because they want to connect to their faith and to God, and to a faith community. They are coming because they really care about connecting with something beyond themselves. They are coming because they are looking for meaning and purpose. That is very Good News. But it is also a challenge to us to strive to provide that for those who come. People can choose to do many things with their Sunday mornings now. If they choose to come to church, what will keep them here? Do they see that other lives are changed? And if not, why would they come? If it doesn’t make a difference, why spend your time in this place? As we consider this, I challenge all of us to listen for God’s voice in the current situation of our congregation and of the Church, universal. What is God calling us to do? What position is God calling us to have in what some may consider a crisis in our congregations? Does God call us to look at the church with fear and to spend our energy struggling to simply survive? Or does God call us to risk, and to change, and to do genuine, affective ministry in our community, searching out the needs of the larger community and committing to serve them with what we have? Does God call us to look at the decline of the church as a travesty and a cause for great alarm? Or does God call us to hear the words of Isaiah 43: 16-19 when he declares, “This is what the Lord says- he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters,... ‘Forget the former things; I do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.’”
Can you not perceive it? While many would say this is a terrible time for the church, I ask you to see it in a new way. This is an exciting time. God is doing a new thing! God has chosen us in this time and place to see a new thing.
That’s not to say that it isn’t hard or scary. Many have said that the Church is facing a Good Friday. We fear the death of the Christian Church, and we cannot see beyond it to what the resurrection will look like. But our faith calls us, absolutely, to trust that the resurrection IS coming. As we heard in Mark today, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
What I am saying is that the Church cannot focus our attention so much on our survival that we fail to do the work of the church, which is ministry in the world and in the community, loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving our neighbors, all of them, as ourselves. I am calling you, even as you keep your eyes open, to have faith that if we choose to serve God and God’s people, if we stop being afraid of death and instead really choose to live a life following Christ, that God will not forsake us, though our life as a church may look different as we seek to do God’s will and follow God’s lead. I am calling you to pray to God for this church and for its ministry and to listen for where God is leading you in ministry. I am asking you to search your heart for the visions you have of ministry in this place and to bring those ideas to session so that we can help make those visions and dreams that God has given you a reality. God has called every member of this church and every member has a vision for ministry from God. Listen to that. Dream about that.
A young and successful executive was traveling down a neighborhood street, going a bit too fast in his new Jaguar. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something. As his car passed, no children appeared. Instead, a brick came smashing into his side door! He slammed on the brakes and backed the Jag up. The angry driver jumped out of the car, grabbed the nearest kid and pushed him up against a parked car shouting, 'Just what the heck do you think you're doing?' he yelled. That's my NEW car! That brick you threw is going to cost you a lot of money...' he fumed. 'Why did you do it?'
The young boy was apologetic. 'Please, mister... I'm sorry but I didn't know what else to do,'
He pleaded, 'I threw the brick because no one would stop...' With tears streaming down his face, the boy pointed to a spot just around a parked car. 'It's my brother, 'he said. 'He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair,' he sobbed. 'I can't lift him up.' The boy asked the stunned executive, 'Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair? He's hurt and he's too heavy for me.' Moved beyond words, the driver hurriedly lifted the handicapped boy back into the wheelchair, then took out a linen handkerchief and dabbed at the fresh scrapes and cuts.
A quick look told him everything was going to be okay. 'Thank you so very much,' the grateful boy told the stranger. At a loss for words, the man simply watched the boy push the wheelchair down the sidewalk toward their home... It was a long, slow walk back to the Jaguar. The damage was quite noticeable, but the driver never bothered to repair the dented side door. He decided to keep the dent as a reminder. To me, the decline of the church is a brick coming out of the air, calling for us to pay attention, and to be willing to risk, to give it all, in order to follow Christ. For it is only in being willing to lose our lives for God, for the sake of God’s people, that we will find them. Amen.