December 28, 2019
Rev. Ron Church
Isaiah 63:7-9 Hebrews 2:10-18 Matthew 2:13-23
The New Year is coming. Say “Hello” to twenty-twenty. Whoopty-do. I stopped celebrating new years a long time ago. I have seen so many new years come and go, and I can’t remember the last time that a new year turned out to be better than the year before. About the time I think that things can’t get any worse, they find a way. If that sounds pessimistic, I’m sorry, it’s just the end result of having your hopes crushed year after year.
I came to the Presbyterian Church from other traditions. I was raised Southern Baptist, but I have also been Assembly of God and Church of Christ. While I accept the validity of all Christian denominations, there are some that I like more than others. I like to think that I have brought a little bit of those other traditions with me. I was drawn to the Presbyterian Church because of the depth of our theology, our academic approach to Scripture and our love for all people.
As I look to the new year and the years beyond, I get a little worried. The PC(USA) was created in 1983 by the merger of two preexisting denominations. At that time, we had a national membership of more than 3 million people. Our membership has declined at the rate of about 4% per year every year since then. We have not had a single year of positive growth in almost 40 years.
I joined the PC(USA) in the 1990s and at that time we had just over 2 million members. We now have just over 1 million members. Friends, if we continue to lose a million members every decade, we are not going to be around very long. I’m not trying to scare you, but the numbers tell the story.
Christianity lived for a long time before the PC(USA) was created, so Christianity will probably continue after the PC(USA) is gone. But what Christianity will it be? Who will be the face and the voice of Christianity when we are gone? The churches that are growing right now are the mega-churches. Their prosperity gospel teaches that God wants you to be rich and happy. That obviously is appealing to a lot of people, but I don’t think it is a healthy interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I said that Christianity would probably continue without us, but that is not guaranteed. All of Christianity lives one generation at a time. If the next generation rejected Christianity on a global scale, then Christianity would cease to exist when this generation passed away. I don’t think that will happen; I’m just saying that it could. I also think it will be a while before the PC(USA) goes away, but I’m not waiting for it to happen.
In trying to address the problem of declining membership, we have seen a lot of gimmicks and schemes come and go. These schemes either don’t work or the results are temporary. They don’t work because they don’t address the real problem. Declining membership is not the problem. Declining membership is what happens when we fail to relate to people in a way that is meaningful to them.
People today want to feel good about themselves and they want to feel empowered. When Joel Osteen says, “God wants you to be rich and God wants you to be happy.” That is extremely attractive to modern people. Unfortunately, I believe that it is a misrepresentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If the prosperity gospel was true, the apostles would have been the richest, most influential people in Rome. But they were not. They were beaten. They were imprisoned. They were executed.
History tells us that the Christian church grew the most during the time of the Roman persecution. Why do you think that was? The Christian writer, Tertullian, said at the time that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church. What Tertullian was saying is that when people saw that Christians were willing to die for their faith, it drew them to Christianity. Romans worshipped their gods as an act of appeasement. If you didn’t worship them, they would punish you.
There may be some validity to Tertullian’s opinion, but I think it was more than that. In Christianity, the Romans saw a faith that was not only worth dying for, but also worth living for. There were no charities in Rome to care for the elderly, the sick or the poor. Christians accepted the care and feeding of these people, even pagans, as part of their duty to God. Also, there was no abortion in Rome. Unwanted babies were abandoned to die. Christians would take these babies and raise them.
What the Romans saw was that, in spite of persecution, Christians continued to do the charity work that the Romans, themselves, were unwilling to do. The Romans could not help but wonder what sort of religion could inspire that kind of selfless devotion.
Christianity is a network of relationships. We have our relationship with God, our relationships with each other and our relationships with people outside of the church. It is my belief that addressing the issue of declining membership is not about recruiting more members, it is about expanding our network of relationships.
I visited a church in Chicago. It was one of the largest and oldest churches in Chicago. The church building was located in the middle of downtown, but the membership had long since moved out to the suburbs. Every Sunday morning, the membership dutifully drove into downtown in order to worship God in their church building.
The area where the church building was located had a lot of homeless people.
When it was cold outside, but warm in the building, the homeless people would gather on the church steps to try and get some of the warm air leaking out around the doors. When the membership arrived, they had to elbow their way through this crowd of homeless people to get into their building to worship God. There were many discussions concerning what they should do about this crowd of people on the steps of their church.
One day, someone suggested, “Why don’t we let them in?” When they let the homeless people in, they started talking to them. By talking to them, they learned that they were not just homeless people. They were real people with faces and names and stories to tell.
Through their contacts with people in the church, those who needed it were able to get mental health treatment, addiction rehabilitation and job training. Some found jobs and were no longer homeless. Many of them joined the church and some of those even took on leadership positions.
The people I talked to were amazed at how the simple act of opening their doors to people they had been ignoring made such a difference in their lives and in the life of their church. My point is that sometimes you find solutions in places where you would not have expected to find them.
That was a situation that turned out good. I’ll tell you about a situation that didn’t go so well. I was serving a church that thought they needed more members. I scheduled a meeting for anyone who was “concerned about the future of the church.” The people who showed up brought with them a 5-year-old demographic study that they had payed way too much money for. I brought the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Obviously, we were not on the same page.
This is not about demographics or marketing or advertising. This is not about managing the membership list. This is not about getting more people to come in the front door than you have slipping out the back. This is about being faithful.
Jesus commissioned us to do one thing; to make disciples. If we devote ourselves to making disciples, then the membership will take care of itself. But most churches don’t want to make disciples because it is difficult. It is a lot of work.
One reason that it is difficult is that over the past 200 years or so, the Presbyterian Church got the reputation of being the church for the middle and upper classes. Presbyterians were expected to be doctors, lawyers, managers, supervisors and accountants. We have got to get free of that stereotype right now. That is like an anchor tied around our necks.
In the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus said go out on the street corner and bring in whoever you find.
If you go out on the street corners in Bellevue, you are not going to find very many doctors and lawyers. What you will find is a wide range of people who have one thing in common: God loves them. Since God loves them, they had better be welcome in our church.
Christianity is a network of relationships. If we build relationships with the people of this community, we get to know them. It is through our relationship that we earn their permission to invite them to join with us in worship and fellowship. That lays the groundwork for discipling them. I believe that this is what Jesus requires of us.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.