a sermon based on Luke 15:1-7
Our Church here in Alpena is on something of a statistical “plateau”… Our membership rolls are pretty much flat, with two new members added to our roster two weeks ago offset by two funerals earlier in the year. We stay an even 150 members. We’re doing better than the shepherd in Jesus’ parable who had only 100 in his flock. (!)
Our level of financial support is also on a plateau. Our 2020 Stewardship goal -- which Jim McNeil spoke about… which indicates how much money will be needed if we are to balance next year’s budget ($125,800) -- is only a few dollars different than what we received this year in pledges to the General Fund. We hold steady, in frugal fashion, to the bottom line, year after year.
Now, there are two ways to get off a “statistical plateau”… One is to come down in numbers, the other is to grow. I think we all would prefer to grow the Church, not to shrink it any further! (Certainly there is at least one little, lost “sheep” somewhere out there we could invite.)
The task before us, then, if we’re not going to shrink… is how to find & attract people into the love & care of our local Church. After all (as I have said many times in the past few weeks): it is in the local congregation that people are moved to follow Christ – where they are given counsel, where they are supported through their joys & sorrows, led to a deeper understanding of life’s meaning, and pointed to ways of service in the community.
We have something to offer here at Alpena’s First Church! Some of you have participated in our mission & ministry here for a generation or more… thank you! Keep it up! May God bless you all.
There are a lot of churches in Alpena for people who are seeking a spiritual home to choose from. We’re always glad when they choose ours. But there are also thousands of people (many of them young) who do not go to any church. They are the “un-churched” families.
And that’s who I want us to think about this morning...
It has never been a high priority in this congregation to do anything to reach out to others beyond our active church members … and those visitors who come to “check us out” from time to time. Somewhat like the Pharisees and Scribes who question Jesus, it has never been considered a measure of the health (or the hope) of our congregation to reach out to others who are not in the church.
We would like people to find us, of course – and for that reason we have been advertising a lot these last few years: billboards, news-paper ads, listings in Civic Theater programs & Senior Citizen Center publications, tourist maps, and so forth. We are always happy to have new people come to join us in worship here, if they are looking for a church home. (!) Our members will be welcoming of them. (!) It’s just that we’re not going to go out looking for them! (Sorry, Jesus!)
There are other churches around us who spend a lot of time and energy getting their members to bring in new members. They call it “witnessing” or “getting people saved” or “winning them to the King-dom.” Some churches (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons) actually come knocking at the door! (Frankly, such evangelical efforts turn me off.) And since we don’t want to be like them, we hesitate to even mention going to church to our friends! We’re just not “pushy”.
If going to church here is more like a personal habit, not a passion – a faithful duty if you are in town, but not necessarily an essential part of your life – you may have little enthusiasm for the idea of trying to get people who are “unchurched” to come worship here on Sundays. It’s an old saying: “If you aren’t convinced of the importance of some-thing, you’re not going to convince someone else of it’s importance.”
In fact there may actually be some tension about how much time and attention (& money) should be spent trying to get other people involved with our church, when we think our real job should be to work with our members… who pay the bills! That’s who “runs” the church.
I mean, if “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together… All who follow Jesus all around the world, yes, we’re the church together”, we have no obligation to worry about the un-churched out there. We have enough on our plate (don’t we?) -- enough to do already -- to provide programs for those people who are our members. (Right?) The 99 who are not lost; the 99 who are here!
In fact, it may be that we haven’t thought about “Reaching Out to Outsiders” very much because we are so busy trying to get people who are coming to our Church more involved beyond just Sunday morning worship that we don’t have time to be concerned about the “unchurched” until they choose to come on their own to visit us.
I mean, if they attend worship, then they’ll hear about the Monday morning Bible Study, and the Tuesday afternoon Bible Study, and the Wednesday “Serenity” Bible Study, and Wacky Wednesday Kids Fun Club with Jeffrey Mindock, and the Thursday morning theological conversations with Leigh Copeland, and the Thursday afternoon Church History Class with me, and Kat’s Choir Practice, and the Friday UCC Needlecrafters.
All those weekly groups exist primarily to serve our members, but they can also serve as opportunities for you to invite an “unchurched person” you know to join you at an educational or a fun activity.
From time to time, we show movies; we bring in guest speakers. We’ll have a Reader’s Theater evening just next week (with a catered Codfish Dinner), and we’re hosting a Harvest Dinner Potluck after worship today. Every one of these activities that is held within the walls of the church could serve as a “side-door” for you to invite someone from “outside the church” to join you here. (!) Please, give it a try! Invite a friend to come with you. Maybe we’ll grow.
Two weeks ago, I spent three days at a Retreat Center near Petosky with 20 clergy from Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopal, and Roman Catholic churches at a LARC retreat. Bishop Kirby Unti (“untie”) from Seattle was our program presenter. He pointed out that our kinds of churches (mainline and liturgical denominations) tend to think that if we offer excellent worship services, with great preaching and fine music, we will fill our houses of worship. That is, “if we do worship well, they will come!” And so the Priest or Pastor spends a great deal of time in the work week preparing for that one hour on Sunday morning. We put almost all our eggs in that one basket… and, lo and behold, “unchurched” people won’t be there. (!) They just don’t do Sunday morning church!
One group of non-church-going outsiders are those who have “no religious preference” – referred to as “nones”, as in “none of the above”. They don’t think that our Church has anything to offer them.(!) Some of them may simply be indifferent to religion altogether; they’re doing fine on their own with a secular perspective that has no interest in deeper “spirituality”, nor desire for “community” beyond their friends.
A second group of skeptics are those who have “tried church” somewhere -- or followed a TV preacher, or encountered a door-to-door evangelical group, which persuaded them to believe certain things (or to behave in certain ways) “in the name of Jesus” -- but it became oppressive, or expensive, or toxic in some way. (!) Perhaps that church was too authoritarian, or patriarchal -- or homophobic, or exclusive toward others who differed from their doctrine -- such that they now reject Christianity. They might not know that an inclusive, progressive, and egalitarian congregation like ours even exists! These are referred to as the “dones”… as in “I tried it, and I’m done with it!”
These people (the “nones” and the “dones”) think that they know what the Church believes because of something others have told them, or taught them, or have done to them (in the name of Christ). They will not come to a worship service unless someone they know, and respect, and trust invites them to come… and will sit with them.
We have felt that kind of rejection (or lack of interest) not just because people don’t choose to come to our Sunday worship services, but even when we have hosted concerts (like Marty Miller, or the Olivet Gospel Choir, or the Toby Jones trio). Yes, our own “church- going” members will attend the concert, but people from the general public do not come. Non-members tend to avoid coming into a church.
It wasn’t that way when I was a kid, but that’s today’s norm. Un-churched people are not looking for us, no matter how fantastic our Sunday morning worship seems to be in our eyes. Unless you ask someone to come with you, they’re not here!
Now, I agree that it’s certainly easier to stay with our old habit of providing quality programs for our current members, and also to be welcoming of those people who (for their own personal reasons) choose to come through the doors, and sit in these pews, alongside us.
That’s how we’ve done it for 157 years, and it may (or may not!) be effective. The Alpena News ran a series of front-page articles about diversity last week, and one headline struck me: “Alpena is Slow to Change”… and I thought, like “Duh! How is that news? Change don’t come easy to lots of folks!”
In William Easum’s book “Dancing with Dinosaurs” -- which is his metaphor for the institutional Church as a largely “out-of-touch”, some-what “archaic”, highly bureaucratic, & mostly irrelevant organization -- quotes Leif Anderson, who says: “Adversity is often the window of opportunity for change. (!) Few people … want to change when there is prosperity and peace. Major changes are often precipitated by urgent necessity.”
Unless you and I, and a significant number of our 150 members, feel the “necessity” to change – feel the “urgency” to grow – we will stay on our plateau… and dance with the dinosaurs.
William Easum writes that there are many Church leaders who are “so consumed by the threats” of decline and the issue of survival that they are “paralyzed to see the opportunities taking shape. … Some insist on clinging to the ways of the past; others yearn to recreate their memories of the past (“Make our Church Great Again”); most refuse to admit that the world they grew up in no longer exists.
“However, many congregations have their share of people,” writes William Easum, “who are ready and able to give leadership … who are willing to concentrate on the opportunities rather than the threats. They have a holy discontent with the way things are. [ These are the ones who know] that if people are allowed to get too comfortable with the present, they learn to live in the past.”
He proposes three questions that we should ask ourselves:
(1) “What are the things congregations do today that no longer make sense? Why do we insist on doing them? What would be the implication if we stopped doing them? Is it possible to re-direct them toward more relevant, redemptive ministries?” I refer to that as putting a red light for “stop”, a yellow light for “caution” -- maybe it’s still working, maybe it’s got to go -- and “green” for GO! It’s working well.
(2) We must ask ourselves: “What can we make possible today in our ministry which will make our congregation more vital and relevant tomorrow?” My faith in God our Creator, and Jesus our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit which empowers and sustains us, tells me that things most people think are impossible are, in fact, possible. “What can we make possible today which will make First Congregational more vital & relevant tomorrow?” Let’s get out our binoculars… field glasses (you hunters) for a long-range view of where we want to be.
(3) Since we live in a predominantly “secular” society, with political values that are largely non-Christian (and that’s true for both sides of the current “polarized” partisan divide!), and an economy that rewards the wealthy while disenfranchising people without sufficient money… we have to ask ourselves “What is Christian versus non-Christian?”
To wrestle with the definition of what it means to be “Christian” will be the topic at our next LARC meeting this coming Wednesday at St. Paul Lutheran Church. So, in preparation for that conversation (as well as today’s sermon), I went to Douglas Johnson’s classic book, “Reaching Out to the Unchurched” (which was hot off the press when I read it at seminary back in 1983). He writes:
“The church exists because Christ went from the Temple into the lives of people. The Bible tells stories of his walking among the outcasts, being concerned about the prostitutes, preaching to the masses out in the open air, touching lepers, eating with the hated [tax collectors] and the despised [sinners].
“It wasn’t easy to do those things then, even as it isn’t easy to do so now. Don’t look on the Gospel stories as novels telling about some characters created by an author. The Gospels tell about a man [Jesus] who believed people ought to be touched by God. He gave them that opportunity [in the flesh!].
“Our Church, if it is to follow his example, will reach out to the non-believers, to the disenchanted, to the skeptical, to those who ridicule and belittle us. It is certainly easier to believe that the Church ought not to try to attract these [kinds of] people, and ought to work only with those who [show some interest in us], those who come in through the doors to us.
Douglas Johnson writes: “Our task is much greater. We have to go out to the nonbelievers, the skeptics, and those who bad-mouth the Church. We have to go out and hear what they have to say. [We have to listen… and that’s much harder! We have to hear what they say in their own language, not ours.] Then we have to tell them what [we think] the Church is about, and what it can do with them, and for them [as it has for us].”
It’s not easy to do, if we’re not used to telling our stories of faith, or speaking about God. But I think he’s right. The Church lives as it moves beyond itself, out of these concrete walls and stained glass windows and into the lives of the people in our community. Amen.
 Dancing with Dinosaurs: Ministry in a Hostile and Hurting World, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press,1993, page 37
Johnson, Douglas, Reaching Out to the Unchurched, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1983, pages 10-11