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Saturday, January 21, 2012

It's the Water, Not the Container

(Writing my annual Pastor's Report for our church's Annual Report booklet, I decided to do something a little different this year.  Because I'm describing challenges facing every congregation in these days of rapid change, this will have some interest for others beyond the Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church...)

There’s an old joke shared among those who know the Presbyterian Church well – although you can actually pull out our denomination’s name and drop in just about any other: “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Did you say... CHANGE?!?!”

By and large, churches don’t handle change very well.  That’s because an important part of what we do in the church is preserving tradition.  Everyone knows that.  On any given Sunday, a significant portion of worshipers have chosen to come because they’re dismayed at developments they’ve seen in the world around them, and are wishing to hold fast to time-honored beliefs and values.

Who can quarrel with that?  I certainly wouldn’t.   

Sometimes, though, we confuse the packaging with the product.

Is it the tune of a familiar hymn that’s truly important, or the spiritual experience it calls to mind?  Is it the expectation that men will wear ties and jackets to worship, or is it their determination to approach God with respect and reverence?  Is it using the same sort of offering envelopes our parents used, or is it using whatever giving method is most consistent with the way we manage money today?

A thirsty traveler rescued from the desert will accept a drink of water just as readily from a tin cup as from a crystal goblet.  It’s the water that’s the thing, not the container that bears it.

It’s all about discerning the difference between the container and its contents.

During the past year, it’s become increasingly clear to me that an era of change will soon be upon us in this congregation.  We’re not unique in this.  Churches everywhere are learning not so much that change will one day come to their neighborhoods, but that it’s already arrived.

This calls for adaptations in our basic approach.  For years, churches have comforted themselves with the familiar line from the film, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”  The assumption behind that bit of Hollywood-manufactured folk wisdom is that large numbers of people out there are peering in our windows, looking for a church to join, and if we simply work hard and “do church” better than others, they will choose us.

There’s only one problem with that way of thinking.  Fewer and fewer people today are looking for a church to join.  Period.  Like it our not, the style of spiritual seeking in our culture has shifted from communal to individual.  It’s all about a person’s individual quest for meaning.

If a seeker encounters congenial friends along the way, so much the better – but to most, it’s not essential.  If one church “has it all,” providing a one-stop spiritual shopping destination, that’s a fine thing.  But most people won’t see it that way.  To them, grazing from church to church, picking here and choosing there, likely fits the bill much better.  And that doesn’t even take into account the explosive growth of first television, and now the internet, as spiritual destinations – bypassing most traditional bricks-and-mortar churches altogether.

The younger generations we’ve traditionally counted on to come back to church to get married, then return a while later to have their children baptized, then eventually sign up for Sunday School, aren’t showing up in nearly the numbers they have in the past.  In part, that’s simply because there are fewer of them out there: the average age at marriage has risen precipitously in the past decade or two.  But it’s also influenced by the nearly universal reality of two-paycheck households, and by the fact that it’s rare for both parents in such a household to have the same day off, and for that day to be Sunday.

The 1950s stereotype of the nuclear family of working Dad, stay-at-home Mom, and 2 or 3 kids all coming to church together – in a world where not much else is happening on Sundays – simply doesn’t exist anymore.  It was becoming less true for my own generation, the Baby Boomers, as we were growing up – and it’s certainly no longer true for our children, who are not only fewer in number, but who (because of that deferred-marriage thing) just aren’t looking for their grandparents’ church.  Not now, anyway.  Not at this point in their lives.  And, very likely, not ever.

So, “If you build it, they will come” just doesn’t make much sense anymore.

What does make sense, then?

Something we’ve always known to be true, but that we’ve somehow, in all our program-building busyness,  managed to push to the back burner: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It’s Jesus’ “Great Commission,” Matthew 28:19-20.

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “If you build it, they will come.”  He says, “Go out into the world, and I will go with you.  Always.”

He doesn’t even tell us where we must end up.  He just says, “Go.”

Friends, if Point Pleasant Presbyterian is going to continue strong into the future, we’ve got to figure out how to go out into the world again – and not even the world as a whole.  Our local community would be a fine start.  It’s called mission, and it’s not what you may think.  It’s not a matter of contributing money so people can do the work for us.  The sort of mission we need to discover is something we can only do ourselves.

A great theologian once wrote, “The church exists for mission as a fire exists for burning.”  Please pray that the Holy Spirit will kindle such a fire among us anew.

What do you think?  Is this an accurate description of the spiritual landscape today?  What would you add, from your experience?

Please scroll down and post a comment.  I'd love to hear from you.

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