Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Should the Church Exist? - A Sermon

I said yesterday at Debbie & Doug’s wedding that if every single person wore red, then I would skip today’s sermon.

I see someone forgot! Too bad!

But I will at least try to make it worth hearing.

First of all, this is the Feast of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles, the birth of the church. Last week I read an article that suggested that the church – or at least the Episcopal Church – might consider folding its tent up and shutting down. I mentioned it in the E-News this week and asked you what you thought about it. Now I’ll tell you what I believe.

The primary argument in the article is that the church is shrinking – badly. Congregations are getting smaller and devoting increasing percentages of their budgets to survival rather than to spreading the Good News. In essence, they don’t think about the Gospel anymore because they are worried about buildings and grounds.

And why all the shrinkage? Well, there are three main reasons. One, we are shrinking from schism. Two, we’re not speaking the language of those we’re bringing good news to. Three, we don’t know what it is we’re supposed to say and /or don’t know the spirit.

Which shrinkage is scarier? Which one will keep us from growing? Ironically, no one of them is a church killer by itself. Let’s look at them one by one.

Schism: The church has suffered many, many schisms or splits over its history. Even at the very beginning, the church almost immediately went into conflict and division about whether or not to allow non-Jews into the church. Then came the controversy over whether or not they should kick out people who believed that God the Father existed before God the Son. Then there was the big Rome/Eastern Orthodox split in 1054 over who should be the leader of the church. And the Reformation.

In the Episcopal Church, we’ve had schisms over whether we should let blacks serve as clergy, over whether we should let women serve as clergy, over whether we should let gays serve as clergy – and of course, over the language in the prayer book.

You may note that many of our splits are over whom we should keep out or at least keep out of leadership.

Yes, there are splits in the church today. But there always have been and yet the church lives.

Speaking the language: A bigger problem for churches is that they don’t speak the language of the people with whom they’re supposed to be sharing the Good News. Remember that on Pentecost, the apostles were given the gift and sign of speaking in all languages. Their job was clear – speak to the world in a way the world can understand; don’t try to make the world speak your language. John Wesley started getting lay preachers in England in the 1700s because the official church leaders were ignoring the country folk. The lay preachers knew their people and spoke in words they understood. Later on, preachers saw an increasingly electronic world and began using first radio, then TV, then the internet to speak to the people entrusted to them – because that was the language they spoke. Those that refused to adapt their language, as it were, shrank.

It’s true that you don’t always have to be understood. The Roman Catholic church for centuries grew even though very few understood the Latin Mass. But then, that wasn’t their primary mission. They didn’t want people to understand – not even the bible.

For us Episcopalians, on the other hand, we often say our primary message is in our worship. If that’s the case, if our worship is to be our main source of reaching out to others, it better be accessible. And yet, one of our deepest schisms in 1979 was about using language in our worship that people would understand.

Spirit: What about losing the Spirit? Often, it occurs that we forget what we’re here for. Indeed, you would think that losing our way, losing sight of the Good News of God’s love might be damaging to growth.

Well, while it’s true that losing a sense of focus leads to shrinkage, the strange thing is that you don’t actually have to have the Good News of Christ in order to grow numerically. Church history shows that you can that through force or fear or by becoming “entertainment”. The church has used all of these methods to grow in both numbers and power. But such growth is an empty shell.

In the end, however, a church – any church – that has all three of these forms of shrinkage is doomed without a serious turnaround. Are we? As the Christian church at large, as a denomination – as a congregation? Should we exist?

I say yes and offer a couple of practical thoughts:

First, Yes, some small congregations should go out of business & consolidate. The Roman Catholics do it for many congregations under 500. Why? It eats up resources, spending them on B&G instead of K of G. We need to be a bit more brutal in our assessment of congregations so that others can consolidate and grow more easily. BUT, some small congregations are vibrant and vital – let them stand on their own.

Second, Yes, any church that forgets why it’s the church might do better going out of existence in favor of those that remember why they are here. BUT the solution to that is to return to the good news. Hear Jesus speak not only to ears but hearts.

Third, Yes, congregations that don’t know how to communicate to the people entrusted to them are in danger of death. BUT they can change. WE can change.

As to splits: they happen. Fear not. If we believe the Holy Spirit who came at Pentecost leads us into opening the Kingdom of Heaven or leadership in God’s church to an ever increasing number of people, those once unacceptable to people though never to God, then let those splits occur – if what we do is of God, all will be well, regardless of what happens to our particular institution.

For in the end, the Kingdom is more important than any congregation or any denomination – they are, after all, temporary institutions at best. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do their work, but they are not God. They will each and every one cease to exist some day. But the Kingdom of God, that to which they all point if they are faithful, reigns in eternity. Amen.