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Pentecost and Fifty-year Members

A sermon based upon Acts 2:1-18 & 37-42 (page 984 in the pew Bible) by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707 Today is Pentecost Sunday, the Birthday of the Church – the day the Holy Spirit infused those original 120 followers of Jesus with courage and insight, inspiring them to get up and get out of that Upper Room… and hit the streets of Jerusalem with their Gospel of Good News about God’s Kingdom come!

Pentecost is so named because it happened 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection at Easter. “Pente” as in “Pentagon” (the five-sided Defense Department headquarters building) or as in “Pentagram” (the five pointed star we use on our American flag) denotes “five”. For 50 days, Jesus’ followers had kept to themselves, hidden away, unsure what to do, afraid to go out. They had been given the Great Commission by Jesus

(Matthew 28:19-20) to “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” But now seven weeks had passed, and they were still hanging around in one big Upper Room – 120 of them.

Seven weeks of seven days each adds up to 49 days. For those Jews, the number 7 “the Sabbath” was considered a “holy” number. So seven-times-seven would be the greatest perfection. Jewish tradition taught that it took Moses that many days to lead the refugee slaves out of Egypt -- through the wilderness, to Mount Sinai -- where on the 50th day, God gave them the Torah. It was the annual celebration of that 50th day, when Moses laid down the Law – the Ten Commandments – that gave rise to the new nation of Israel, which was why so many strangers and out-of-town visitors were in Jerusalem: for the festival of Pentecost.

We’ll look at that story in more detail in a moment, but first, in recognition of (and honor toward) the many 50-year-plus members present this morning, I’d like to speak first about our own congregation of believers right here in Alpena.

Let’s think back 50 years ago, or more for some of you… In the 1950’s & 60’s, in addition to a booming “Bird’s Nest” Sunday School and Pilgrim Fellowship youth group, our church’s Women’s Fellowship consisted of about 100 women divided into 10 different Circles (!) who met for study and for fellowship. When they met several times a year for a meal all together, they averaged 61 women in attendance. (Well done!)

Yes, there was a post-war Baby Boom going on and new families were coming to Alpena for employment in the 1950’s. Under the guidance of Jesse and Anna Besser’s “Building Committee” (which included Carl Henry, Jay Bingham, Fred Trelfa, and Rev. Barksdale), ground was broken on April 12, 1951, for a new masonry and concrete block church building; the cornerstone was laid on Nov. 8, 1953, and this brand new beautiful sanctuary was dedicated on April 17, 1955. We just passed it’s 62nd Anniversary. (Thank you, Jesse & Anna Besser!)

And, yes, you may remember that the 1950’s & early-60’s were the heyday of mainline Protestant church-going every-where in America. Our kind of church was called (in railroad terminology) the “main-line” of American Christianity, while Evangelicals & Pentecostals were considered “side-lines”. As you know, those roles have been reversed in this 21st Century. In the 1950’s and 60’s, people who moved to Alpena (like those moving into any new area) wanted to find a church in order to become more actively integrated into the community and to raise their family with Christian values. (“Those were the days, my friend; we thought they’d never end!”)

But, face it: the desire to find a church is not high on today’s social agenda. Alpena cannot rely for its growth upon new families moving into town anymore! At best, the demographics show adult children (or even grandchildren) of Alpena’s original homebuyers, coming back as “early retirees” as they inherit the houses they grew up in. Even so, even then, we cannot expect these new residents to automatically be looking for a “downtown” mainline church like ours. In that regard, it is especially gratifying that Bill & Wendy Lewis, Craig & Lori Waak, Ferrol Osgood & Terry Arnold, Marcie Sherman, Nelson Knill & Jordan Spence, and the Annie & Tim Schultz family (Kate & Nick & Tilly & Finn), and Jason Barbeau and Christin Sobeck and their kids, and Adam & Danielle Guerrero & Christopher are so often here! (& Stacia) On a Sunday when we recognize church members who have been here for fifty-years & more, it’s nice to see new folks, too.

The Michigan Historical Marker on our front lawn points out that we used to be the only game in town! But it wasn’t long before the Episcopalians built Trinity Church across the street, and the Irish Catholics built St. Bernard’s up the street. Methodists and Presbyterians each spun off churches of their own; as did the Germans & the Norwegian Lutherans, too. Did you know that the First Baptist Church used to be located right behind ours, where the city parking lot is now? Back in those days, people were “church-going” not only because they were Christian, but also because it was their social hub, a place to raise a healthy family, and to do stuff. Churches showed movies, held square dances and talent shows, brought in speakers, put on chicken dinners for the community, as well as held worship services and Bible Studies. Those of you who have been members here for 50 years and more will remember how significant the relationships were among church members…

… almost like an extended family of surrogate aunts & uncles, grandparents, good friends and neighbors. Our church members are people who have helped make us who we are! Thank you, to those who are present… and those who have left us.

Times have changed, haven’t they? Oh, yes, some people still shop for a church that they can call “home” – and (as I said a moment ago, naming a few names) we are so very fortunate when they give us a try! It makes us old-timers feel good to see new, young families, visiting us on Sunday mornings; we like to welcome “newcomers” to town and get to know them. We really mean it when we say at the start of every worship service: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” And we gladly put out the “Extravagant Welcome” welcome mat.

But those days of people coming to church as a regular habit, are fading fast! The time may have come when we will have to actually (actively) TELL people that we are here… and tell ’em what kind of church we are.

Even though we have been here for 155 years, people don’t necessarily know (anymore) what “Congregational” means. (!) Most folks who don’t go to church are not particularly looking for a church… not ours, nor anybody else’s!

We might have to go to them, like Jesus suggested in his Great Commission: “Go ye, therefore, into the world and make disciples of every nation.” Get up & get out; & get talking! That’s the real miracle of what happened to the Church on that first Pentecost Sunday! People went outside and told their stories about Jesus, & what he had done for them & the world. Historically, the Congregational Church has been sending out missionaries for 200 years. Our Global Mission Board is, in fact, the oldest chartered mission on this continent. (!)

The U.C.C. (United Church of Christ) continues the work of the American Missionary Board which first brought Christianity to Hawaii & Samoa in the 1820’s, and to the Philippines… It may interest you to know that we (the UCC) are the ones who sent the first Protestant missionaries into Catholic Mexico… long before the Pentecostal churches or Baptists & Mormons began their outreach to Latin America… and some missionaries sent from our Pacific School of Religion were martyred in Mexico.

In every generation -- from the Pilgrims who founded New England, and the German farmers who settled the Midwest, to the pioneers who started churches all across the plains states as America moved West (including on Indian Reservations) -- our mainline Congregational tradition has taken steps to insure that we do our part to fulfill Jesus’ mandate: “Go... make disciples of all nations. Baptizing them...and teaching them to observe every-thing that I have commanded you.” In every village or town, we built a church Meeting House and usually started a public school.

(It’s in hopes of starting new churches in our day that we take up this morning’s “Strengthen the Church” offering.)

Those glory days of church growth (back in the 18th, 19th, & early 20th Centuries) are ‘ancient history’ to most folks today! We passed the zenith of our membership numbers 27 years ago (in 1990) when we had 429 people on our roster. Today we are down to less than half that many (179 at last count).

In that, we are not alone. It’s been the trend of our whole denomination… and for most of the mainline churches!

In 1961, when our church joined the United Church of Christ, there were 6,755 congregations; with over two million members, and more than 1,137,000 kids in Sunday School!

35 years later (in 1996), the UCC had lost 645 churches, and we had lost 600,000 members! That was one third of our membership. 20 years ago, we were down to only 353,877 young people in Christian Ed classes. That was only 1/3 as many as we had during the Baby Boom (my generation).

Ten years ago, the UCC had 5,377 churches with 1.1 million members. By 2014, we had lost another 315 churches and another 200,000 members. At present, the UCC now has less than one million total members in 5,000 churches, & less than 190,000 young people in Christian Ed “faith formation” classes all across our country. We’re shrinking in numbers. Alpena, with 179 members – actually, only 178, since my Mother died – is a “middle-sized” congregation. The 83 “new church starts” which may benefit from today’s Strengthen the Church offering average less than 25 members apiece. There are a lot of little churches (60 members or less) across America. At least we are a sustainable size, with a great facility, & funds.

The 40 of you, who have been members here for 50-years or more – make up almost one-quarter of our roster. That is a fairly high percent of long-time members! And if we were to add those people who became members back in 1966 along with Dave Zeller, we should count Edith Gerber (who was Rosenthaler), and, if we go back 50 years, we should also count Jim McNeil, Phil Naylor, & myself… because we were all confirmed together on March 23, 1967. So young; now old. We are not only “shrinking”, we are “wrinkling”! If Edith and Jim McNeil & I are looked upon as the “younger” generation -- and we are in our 60’s -- what does that tell you? Where is the cutting edge in our congregation? I am concerned that so long as we keep ourselves comfortable, and keep things familiar, we will not feel the urgency to get up (like those first disciples did on that first Pentecost Sunday)…

… to get up and get out into the community, and to tell our story so that our un-churched neighbors can hear it in their own language. Things won’t change until we feel the urgency! What did our choir sing to us a moment ago? “Wake up, church, wake up! The Lord is calling you. Wake up, church, wake up! There is kingdom work to do… We can’t hide inside the walls, sitting on the pews. God calls us to go out, and we cannot refuse. So, arise & shine, & give God the glory, glory!”

You know, that’s easier said than done. A couple years ago, when Lloyd & Mary Jo Springer moved away, we lost someone who habitually and genuinely welcomed visitors and newcomers every Sunday morning. Instead of just hanging out with their long-time church friends, Mary Jo greeted visitors with a warmth that swelled up from deep within her. Many of you have told me that my Mom, Dodi, was like that, too. A greeter!

But this ability to engage visitors and others is a challenge for older long-established churches like ours… where friendships have long been formed, and where there is not a “felt need” to bring new people into our midst. We don’t take the effort to meet.

I mean, we love to see our friends on Sunday morning, don’t we? We look forward to chat with them in the hallway after worship, or sit with them upstairs in Coffee Fellowship Time. Today, especially, when we salute our members who have been here for 50 years or more… with special home-made cupcakes by Dottie Haase & Patty McNeil… we love to meet & greet people we have known for a lifetime. But we may not think to engage the newcomer, the first-time visitor or guest, like Mary Jo & my Mother Dodi used to do. It’s a challenge, isn’t it? So far as I know, every church claims to be “friendly”, but, frankly, quite often they are friendly only to themselves.

A church can become a close-knit “mutual admiration society” of like-minded folks that makes everyone within their circle feel great. You hear it, for example, when someone says they don’t need to wear a nametag, because “everybody knows who I am.”

Outsiders to those circles, however, may get the feeling that they cannot penetrate those small groups of close-knit kindred spirits. (They don’t know people’s names.) On this Pentecost Sunday (and again next Saturday at my Mom’s memorial service reception), please make a point of looking around you at the others, whom you might not yet know very well. Let’s truly be “open” to all! Not just to our old friends. Let’s mix and mingle. Find out who else is here this morning.

We are not all alike in this church. We may not be as diverse as the nationalities that Kathy Dempsey read about in this morning’s Bible text – Arabians and Judeans; people from Libya, Egypt, and Asia; visitors from Rome – 3,000 of whom joined the Jesus movement on that Pentecost Sunday! But we do have both Democrats and Republicans, Independents and non-voters (side by side in these pews). We have folks from all kinds of professions and the unemployed alike; people from various religious backgrounds and some from none at all. We have a great many artistic people, and some who are… less so.

The diversity of members in one of our greatest assets, since it opens us to other points-of-view and a wide breadth of life experiences. As we get to know each other outside our normal long-time friendships, we discover the richness and depth of what it means to be a congregation, united in Christ.

The fresh breath of God’s Spirit -- roaring through those 120 men & women and sparking a fire in them that was bursting to spread out among the community – has not gone out! We can do it! We must do it. May God help us do it! Amen? Amen.

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