Tag Archives: decline

The One Off – What Commitment looks like for the 21st Century Church

If you follow the liturgical calendar, you will know that the the first half of the church year is made up of diverse seasons that tell the story of Jesus – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter. And then comes a long season of counting Sundays called Ordinary Time.

Towards the end of that second half of the church year, there are a bunch of “one-off” Sundays that mark an occasion for a single Sunday, rather than a season. Thanksgiving (it is in October in Canada ), Reformation Sunday (for Lutherans), Halloween/All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant and then Christmas Eve.

I find it interesting that for most churches out there October through Christmas is often the busiest, most active time of the year. It probably has to do with the beginning of school and the lingering fall weather that keeps us looking for opportunities to get outside before winter.

But I often wonder if it says something about the changing nature of commitment of active church goers. In decades past, active church members were defined as those who attend every Sunday or nearly every Sunday. I have seen the old buttons, pins and stickers of the 60s and 70s for people to collect from the churches they attended while on vacation. These were for those going for perfect Sunday school attendance records, and probably to ward off nosy pastors inquiring as to why you missed a Sunday.

In the last decade or two, active church membership has been counted by those who attend once a month or more. There simply isn’t a statistically relevant number of people who show up every Sunday. There are still some who can be counted on to be in their pew every week, but often the active members of a congregation attend 1 to 2 times a month. These are people who are leaders in churches, serving on council, leading music, teaching bible studies, chairing committees etc…

There are lots of factors to this of course, and no, it is not Sunday shopping and sports. I think it has more to do with most households shifting from 1 income earner to 2. Longer work weeks – 50 or 60 hours – being demanded of many. The snow bird schedules of those who have the chance to travel in retirement. And our changing tolerance as a society for long term obligations and duties. We simply have less time and energy because we work more and earn less – so our personal/family/recreation time comes at a premium.

So when the church has a bunch of one-off Sundays like Thanksgiving, Confirmation Sunday, Reformation, All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant in Advent and the most one off Church events of them all – Christmas Eve – people start showing up. We are now a society that can handle committing to show up once… but not usually more than that.

This change is the reason why Sunday Schools struggle to keep going. Church councils and committees struggle to find bodies. Choirs, men’s and women’s groups, and bible studies are falling out of the commonplace in the life of congregations. It isn’t that people don’t want to do these things, it is that there isn’t time and energy for many weekly or even monthly obligations anymore – there is barely time to go to church at all more than one or two times a month.

And one of the one of common concerns you hear from church leaders, from tired out folks wanting to give up their long held commitments, is how to get “those other people” to come and take on more. How can we get people to come back?

The thing is, we all know that this is the wrong question, we just don’t know who to frame it differently. It just isn’t going to happen, we haven’t turned the clock back before and we won’t figure out how to do it now. People aren’t going to just come out of the woodwork to volunteer in droves for 3 year committee commitments and 25 year Sunday School teacher terms.

I think we also know what the right question is too.

I think most church leaders and members know that the real question lies in how the church shifts from being a social obligation to a place where we practice our faith in community. And more importantly, shifting our own understanding of what this means.

It isn’t actually bad thing for churches to differentiate ourselves from the local cultural club or community centre or YMCA or arts community or PTA or soup kitchen. We might have aspects of those things, but those thing are not core to our identity as churches.

Churches are primarily places to practice our faith – to gather with other believers and hear again the good news of Christ given for us.

Churches are places to follow Jesus, to experience God’s commitment to us, rather than be burdened by our commitment to God.

Churches are places where we are a community of people brought together by Jesus, by a common faith that we want to share with others. Not a group of friends who also sometimes pray.

The transformation from place of social and culture obligation to place where faith is practiced is pretty damn scary. In fact, it so scary to imagine that we would rather just complain about “those other poeple” who aren’t taking our jobs from us so that we don’t have to do them anymore.

It is scary to imagine what a church full of people who actually wants to follow Jesus together and to see where Jesus leads will look like… because it will be very different than what we look like now.

It is scary to ask how we get there too – even if we know that this is the question we need to ask and the one being asked of us.

And it might mean allowing for a world full of poeple who cannot give more than a day or two a month to commit to something… but is also means preaching the gospel to a world full of people carrying heavy burdens, who need communities of faith to share those burdens with, and who need to hear about a God who is deeply committed to them, no matter what.

It might mean reimagining what commitment to church looks like, or rather imagining how churches can be places that give people grace, hope, mercy and meaning… instead of slave labour in the form “volunteer jobs…”

Oh, and it might also mean giving people that new life thing that Jesus likes to talk about too.

Closing 9000 churches in Canada – Why decline might still be a good thing in 2019

I have been writing about decline for a good while now… as a Millennial and a Pastor, the entirety of my life has been in a “declining” church. Church buildings that greatly outsize worship attendance, mostly grey-haired people sitting in the pews, budgets that are strained and a whole lot of grief about what we once were and anxiety about the future.

And yet, the deeper we get into this era of decline the more complicated the situation becomes. Or perhaps better said, the more aware of how complicated this situation is we become.

Still, the narrative we often tell is that the people have drifted away from church for a number of shallow reasons like laziness, sports, shopping, and a general lack of commitment.

Just this week, there was a CBC news article about the impending closure of 9000 church buildings in Canada over the coming decade.

Sounds very ominous.

The article interviews a representative of Faith and Common Good, a group working to preserve historic buildings in general. At one point the interviewee says,

“If you follow the statscan data you can see that since the late 1970s, early 1980s less and less Canadians attended faith services. I think, to some extent, that also has to do with the way families have changed. They’re off at hockey and soccer and this and that and it’s harder to have a set Sunday date to go somewhere. So, that happened slowly and then suddenly the congregation, there were very few of them and they were quite elderly and the amount of money they could contribute to the plate couldn’t keep up these often very large and historic spaces.”

I think that this situation is a lot more complex than this interviewee describes.

And honestly, I think this is a shallow and misleading narrative. Hockey and soccer are not responsible for keeping people away from church. Church attendance did decline in the 80s and 90s as immigration from European countries dropped. However it has since stabilized in the 2000s according to Reginald Bibby, Canada’s sociologist of religion.

It is also true that as the bulk of Canada’s current immigration from Asia and Africa is bolstering mainly Catholic and Pentecostal groups. The mainline in many cases continues to slowly decline, more or less depending on which denomination you look at.

But a significant piece of this “decline” that is rarely mentioned by anyone but Bibby is that it wasn’t until the 90s that the census allowed people to choose ‘no affiliation’ in the religion section. So lots of people were filling out censuses and checking off a box of religious membership despite rarely or never having been to church. The precipitous decline of the 90s was mostly about more accurate information.

The accompanying narrative about decline is usually that churches are mostly older members now, which implies young people not coming. And yes, it is true that attendance has declined through successive generations. But there are some real demographic realities in Canada that need to be acknowledged when it comes to current church demographics. In the 60s, families had 4.2 kids. Today the average Canadian family has 1.6 kids. And Canada has gotten older. In the 60s, the first baby boomers where leaving childhood for adolescence. Today, 50% of us are over 50 with all the baby boomers falling into that category.

So what does this mean for churches?

For every young family of four (2 adults, 2 kids) like mine, there will be two empty-nester households (4 older adults). Two grey-haired families for every young family. Expand that to the whole congregation, it means the best demographic you can hope for is 2/3 of your congregation will be “grey haired” households. The congregation that I serve is pretty close to that demographic spread. Of course, some churches out there are indeed trending towards mostly grey haired folks and that is problematic.

But the point is, all the young people that we often imagine not coming to church anymore are not who we think they are. In fact, all those young people we remember that used to come to church are actually the grey-haired family units coming now, and the new young people to replace them were never born – they literally don’t exist.

And the last demographic reality faced by churches these days, and the one that probably most accounts for the prospect of closing 9000 churches in the next few years, is the rural to urban demographic shift. Canada’s population has been shifting from the rural setting to the Urban one for decades. Churches in rural communities are closing at an alarming rate, but so are schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores and on and on. Rural communities are losing people to support most of their local institutions, not just their churches. Rural depopulation is also coupled with people being as mobile as ever — many rural people are shopping, seeing doctors, going to school and to church by driving into urban settings.

Okay… so that is a lot of factors and complications added to the picture of the institutional decline of Christianity in Canada and by extension the United States. Clearly this is NOT about hockey and soccer being more appealing activities on Sunday mornings.

So what is it about?

Well, I think there are a few things that those of us who are trying to understand decline and continue to be church in the 21st century need to keep in mind.

1.We need to stop seeing the exception as the norm.

The current “shrunken” state of the church is far closer to the norm of Christianity over time than the bursting full churches of the middle 20th century. Rather than asking how we got here, we need to be asking what happened that caused such widespread church attendance in 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

2. We need to admit that the full pews did not translate in to widespread discipleship and faithfulness.

There was (and still is for many older people) a significant social and cultural aspect to attending church 50 years ago. Many societal norms simply slotted people into church during the golden age of attendance. Being a citizen of Canada or the United States also made one a Christian during that time. You had to be a good church going person to do business, to have a community, to get married and have a family, to navigate many day-to-day interactions in most communities. People came to church because of social advantages and social pressure.

But did they come to church because believing in Jesus and being a disciple was important? The answer has to be that for many the faith and discipleship aspect of going to church was not a significant factor.

3. We need to admit that before we can be healthy again, we need to shed our attachment to cultural and social Christianity.

While there is a lot of grief about decline and a sense of loss of what churches once were, there are also important truths to hold on to. By now, most people consistently showing up to church on Sunday morning are there because faithfulness and discipleship is important. Following Jesus and hearing again the Good News of God’s love, mercy forgiveness and promise of new life is why people are there. Sure some are stubbornly holding onto social/cultural Christianity, but I think most people in the pews most Sundays are present because the Holy Spirit has brought them in faith. We are becoming communities gathered around faith, rather than around societal expectation.

Decline is still all the rage in 2019, as evidenced by secular news articles about closing church buildings that emphasize their importance to secular communities. Yet, I am not sure decline is such a bad thing for Christianity. It is a common state of existence over our 2000 year history. It is a difficult adjustment but also a call to change, to find news ways to preach the gospel and encouraged faith in a 21st century world.

Decline is shedding baggage that we need to rid ourselves of… because cultural-social Christianity is not about the gospel nor about helping people grow in faith and discipleship. Yet a Church free from adherence to the norms and expectations around it is a Church free to proclaim the radical grace and mercy of God, free to proclaim the God of New Life and Resurrection to a world hellbent on dying.

And isn’t that not just a good thing, but the most important thing?

Could decline be a good thing for Christianity?

You might have figured this out already, but I write a fair bit about the decline of Christianity in North American. And by decline I mean the aging and shrinking membership of churches as people drift away from church membership and attendance.

I talk about it, preach about it, and I blog about it here.

I have been a pastor for nearly a decade, but I am still just young enough to be considered a millennial. Millennials, of course, being the generation much lamented as the ones who stopped going to church (here is a secret: it was our parents who started the exodus).

As churches and denominations experience the effects of decline, both in terms of fewer members and smaller budgets, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and lamenting and finger-pointing and worrying. There has been conflict about who is to blame, experts are brought in to teach churches how to “bring people back.”

Often the habit of those still committed to upholding congregations and denominations is to try to diagnose the reasons that people have stopped coming and churches are shrinking. The Lord’s Prayer no longer being said in public schools, Sunday shopping, sports on Sundays, etc… As if just changing one of those things send people back into church in droves. We long for the magic bullet fix that will turn the church back into what we remember it being… something that was never as great in actuality as it was in memory.

Decline is very scary for churches today. It is the thing that makes us wonder where all the young people went, that makes us tired and want to pass on responsibilities to someone else, it can quite frankly make us feel depressed every time we walk into big mostly empty sanctuaries with just a few bodies dotting the pews for worship.

Yet, I wonder if we have ever considered whether or not decline is actually a bad thing for us.

Could the decline of Christianity in North America even be a good thing?

We often imagine, describe and speak about decline in unhelpful ways. We buy into the notion that more is always better. We think of churches like companies who if they aren’t growing, taking in more people and more revenue, are dying.

But churches aren’t companies trying to survive in a downturned market. Churches are more like living creatures. And when living creatures only take in more and more and more it is not healthy. In fact, we know that never-ending growth for a living creature will lead to death.

Instead, living creatures need moderation and balance. When we have too much of something we need to cut back in order to be healthy.

The decline that we have been experiencing lately just might be God putting us on a diet. God is calling us to cut back, in order to be healthy, in order that we might live.

Just step back for moment and consider all that the things that need to be true about the church if decline is truly bad and limitless growth is good.

It means that the Gospel is nothing more than a numbers game, a tool to increase attendance and revenue.

It means that the Kingdom of God is retreating from the world as we shrink, and that God can only do as much as we are able to provide the money and people to do.

It means that real ministry is about attraction, sales, and consumerism because the goal is to get more people through the doors, rather than sending more disciples out.

It means that if we could reverse the decline we lament, the church would become a virus growing until everything is consumed by it, all people and all resources.

If these things are not true, is it possible that decline might be a good thing? 

If decline is a call to give up the excess, the things that don’t help us live but weigh us down… what is it that we are being called to give up?

The churches in the area I serve in are dealing with this question in concrete ways by working towards 5 congregations being served by 1.5 pastors.

But to get there we had to sort out the difference between important things and essentials. There are a lot of important things that we had to let go of. We had to let go of the hurts and failures of the past, the much beloved traditions and expectations that feel so central to our identity as churches. We had to sacrifice comfort and security for the sake of ministry, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in faith.

And in coming to what was essential, we had to ask what were the things that God called us to do that made us church… things that we had to do no matter how big or small, rich or poor we are. Surprise, surprise, it turned out the be the same stuff that Martin Luther and the reformers said was essential to being church. The same stuff that Jesus commanded us to do – Word and Sacrament ministry. And while we would not be able to do a lot of the important things that churches are used to doing (programs, events, committees, traditions, expectations), we discovered that we could make sure that everyone had the essentials.

As we have taken the first steps towards a paired down focus on the essentials, on Word and Sacrament ministry, it has been surprising how good it is for us. It is like eating healthy food and doing exercises for a church, focusing on the stuff that we need to keep doing in order to still be Church.

And we are still figuring out what to do with this new smaller, leaner Body (of Christ) it clear that a lot of churches and denominations in North America just might benefit from decline as much be hurt by it. 

No, we will not be the churches we once were. Not everyone will come back, not every fall supper, craft sale, dinner theatre production, scout troupe, curling bonspiel can be resurrection. Maybe not even every Sunday School or women’s group or men’s breakfast. We cannot go backwards, we cannot return to what we once were.

Because it was unsustainable. Memories of full churches with lots going on, and more people and finances than we knew what to do with could be described in others ways. Full and growing can also mean bloated and gaining weight. Filled to the brim can also mean burdened.

God just may be calling us to let go and cut back on the stuff that no longer works, stuff that we struggled to find volunteers for, that we tire ourselves trying to maintain, that we wish there were others to take over for us.

God just may be telling us to stop. 

To stop relying on social pressure or favourable shopping hours to bring people to church, but instead let the Holy Spirit call people to faith.

To stop seeing church membership as an act of citizenship, but instead a practice of faith.

To stop focusing our energy and time on maintaining budgets, facilities, membership roles, committees, programs and local traditions, but instead let the disciplines of Word and Sacrament ministry govern our communities. To let the rhythms and patterns of the liturgy and church year show us where to spend our time and energy.

To stop trying to do everything for all people, but instead refocus ourselves on the Gospel – the story of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

The longer church declines and more we try to go backwards… the clearer it becomes that God is getting us ready for the future. But first God is shedding us of our old selves, cutting back on the things that once worked for us, but now weigh us down and keep us from moving forward.

Decline isn’t a bad thing. It is a diet, a diet so that the church can be healthy again. 

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years for Lutherans, Protestants and the Church

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As I attended the National Convention of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we have been asked to consider what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, the same kind of convention that I attended for my denomination would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years, that the 3 or 4 Lutheran bodies that each look like the above picture will be merged together and look like this when they gather:

19800617_10159029420640541_3990159967040986153_o
Photo Credit – https://www.facebook.com/CanadianLutherans/

Thousands reduced to less than 200.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But think about it, society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

Let me offer and example.

In 2015,  the National Church Council of the denomination that I serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wanted to challenge our church body to 4 different ways of commemorating Reformation 500. We were encouraged to raise $500,000 for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), to provide 500 scholarships for students in Jordan and the Holy Land, to plant 500,000 trees and to sponsor 500 refugees.

As the story goes, the intial idea was the above with one fewer zero on each number. But a particular council member said, “let’s slap a zero on these challenges.”

Of course the council did not expect us to meet those goals, but swinging for the upper deck was better than just going for a base hit.

Two years later, we have raised 150,000 for the LWF (3 times the pre “slap a zero on it goal”), we have provided 160 scholarships (3 times the original goal), and we have planted 80,000 trees (almost two times the original goal.

But here is where it gets interesting.

Since 2015, and with several months to go before Oct 31, we have sponsored 540 refugees exceeding the “slap a zero on it” goal and more than 10 times the original goal!

How did we do that?

Well just a couple months after our 2015 national convention, the body of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. A boy who had been denied entrance to Canada. A boy whose tragic death mobilized the world. 

So did we meet our “slap a zero on it goal” because we are a church of expert refugee sponsors? Hardly.

But rather the world needed what we had to offer. Which was communities small enough to care for families who needed help, but large enough to mobilize enough money, furniture, and volunteers to settle newcomers in our commmnities.

All we needed to do was let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

That God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us does.

A Full Church is not Measured by the Number of People

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

(Read the whole passage)

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each 4th Sunday in the Season of Easter is reserved to hear about Jesus the Good Shepherd. And here at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we could consider this Sunday an opportunity to celebrate our congregation. Just as congregations with names like St. Matthew’s, or St. John’s often celebrate on the feast days of their saints.

But this year we get short changed in the shepherd department. We are in the 3rd year of our 3 year cycle of readings for each Sunday. And last year and the year before, Good Shepherd Sunday got the good readings. “I am the Good Shepherd” readings. Today we get a passing reference to sheep and that is it.

In fact, as we encounter Jesus, it is an entirely different celebration. The festival of Dedication. Or more commonly known as Hanukkah – nothing to do with shepherds.

Instead of Shepherds, sheep, meadows and spring, we get the dead of winter. Jesus is walking through the temple, the Portico of Solomon. A space along the East wall where crowds would have gathered to celebrate Hanukkah – a winter festival of lights. It was an 8 day celebration to commemorate how the temple had been liberated 200 years earlier from oppression by the Seleucids – the empire of Alexander the Great. The liberating rebels found the temple defiled and the only undefiled thing was a sealed bowl of olive oil, enough to light a lamp for one day. But the oil lasted 8 days, long enough to complete the ritual cleansing.

Hanukkah, this winter festival of lights was a time for families to gather, to remember how they had been freed from oppression and how the nation of Israel had been restored. But by Jesus’ day, the celebration would have been bitter-sweet. The people now lived under different oppressors – the Roman Empire.

And so the crowds gathered at the temple for Hanukkah see Jesus, and they are looking for liberation again. They want to be saved, restored to former greatness, they want control of their destiny and future. They press in on Jesus wanting answers. They long for the day when their nation would be their own again – they want a Messiah to come and lead them to greatness, just like the rebels had done 200 years before. “Tell us plainly” they demand of Jesus, give us the quick and easy answer to our problems.

Jesus doesn’t give them answer they are looking for, instead he talks about sheep knowing his voice and people being snatched out of his hands. A cryptic non-answer for a crowd wanting a plain and straight forward response.

In many ways, the bitter-sweetness of celebrating liberation while living under oppression is something we know too. No we haven’t needed liberation from anything here in Canada. Nor do we know what it is like to live under oppression.

But we do know what it is like to feel like for our identity and place in the world to be taken away. On a day when we could be celebrating Good Shepherd, it is easy to carry concerns about the future. It is easy to feel like an older, thinner and more tired version of ourselves. It easy to feel like those crowds did, like we are celebrating something that is already gone from us.

This week as the ACTS group met for bible study and considered this gospel lesson, it was Jesus’ answer to the crowds that generated questions. One question in particular stuck with me throughout the week, “If Jesus says he won’t let us be snatched from God’s hand, what does being snatched out look like.”

What I think our group was really asking was, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why does it feel like our church is shrinking and dying. Why does it feel like the world doesn’t care about us anymore? Why do people who were once here, once parts of our family, once parts of our community, no longer come? What about all the people who are gone? Have they not been snatched away?”

The question that the ACTS group asked is most certainly on the minds of Christians all over. And it is one we consider lots here at Good Shepherd too.

And we get frustrated too when we just want a plain answer from Jesus, but he gives us something vague and cryptic. Or at least he gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy our questions.

When the crowds demand to know if Jesus is the Messiah, he rejects the premise of their question. “I have told you, and you do not believe”

The crowds are asking for their temple and nation to be restored. They want a Messiah who will bring back the glory days, who will make Israel great again (as some politicians these days are fond of saying). The crowds are looking to return to the glory of Hanukkah… to relive the story of human triumph in the world. Of one group overcoming and having power over another.

But this is not about God’s work in the world. They are not remembering the covenant with Abraham, God delivering them from Egypt, nor God giving them a King in King David (despite God’s objections). They remembering their own glory.

And Jesus is not talking about a Messiah King, or Messiah warlord or Messiah President. Jesus is talking about a Messiah who has been sent for God’s work in the world.

So what are we asking of the Messiah? What do we want Jesus to tell us plainly? Sometimes we get wrapped up in asking the Messiah to restore our church, to build our membership, to increase our attendance. Sometimes, without thinking, we can equate how we feel about church with how we talk about God. We say that our church is shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shell of what it once was… we say that God seems to be shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shall of what God once was in our world. How we feel about church is how we talk about God.

Jesus is reminding us that it is actually the other way around. How God feels and acts towards us is how we should be talking about church.

Who is here and who is not hear is not a measure of whether or not we have been snatched out of God’s hand. How many people keep up weekly attendance is not a measure of the church or the Good Shepherd.

Jesus is telling us today the fullness of the church, that the aliveness of the church is about what God is doing here.

The church is full because the Word of God fills it with the Good News of God’s love for sinners, for the broken, for the forgotten and marginalized. The church is full of God’s love for us.

The church is full because the waters of baptism overflow here with grace and mercy. Just as Jaxson is baptized this morning, so to are we reminded that because we are baptized too, that God’s grace is overflowing here, filling this place. The church is full of God’s hope for us.

The church is full because the bread and wine of new life are in abundance here. Because when the Body of Christ gathers, we become bread for the world and we are send out with good news for the world. The church is full God’s gifts for us.

Like those crowds gather for Hanukkah, we can easily can get wrapped up in wanting to restore former glory, with wondering what God is doing with a seemingly shrinking, dying place, with measuring our fullness by who is here and who is not. We can starting talking about God using the language of how we feel.

But Jesus reminds us of how God feels and acts towards us.  That the Messiah is about doing God’s work. And that God’s work fills this place, not with us, but with God. God fills this place with love and mercy and grace – God’s work done here and done for us.

Amen. 

Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be”

This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith

The article humorously reveals an issue facing many churches today. I can’t tell you how many times (56,819 times) I have had the conversation where someone talks about the fact that young people aren’t as committed as they once were. People aren’t coming to church like they did in decades past, and those left behind have started to notice. Many congregations are feeling older, thinner, and tired out. The future feels bleak. The studies tell us that the church is declining.

And so churches try any number of things to attract people back to church. Youth group programs, revamped and modern music, renovated worship spaces, hip and cool pastors with tattoos and any number of other gimmicks.

But nothing seems to work. At least I haven’t heard of any churches successfully bringing back all the members who drifted away. And yet we keep at it, week after week, year after year worrying about people who were once here. Our grand plans for revitalization is to try and appeal to people who have already chosen to leave. Sure, it works once in a while, but this is probably not a strategy for success.

Yet, while churches fret and worry about those who were once there, we rarely take the time to understand what we are asking people to come back and commit to.

Commitment to church

A lot of sermons, bible studies, meetings, conferences, lectures, consultants, coaches and more have been spent analyzing and communicating the message that the social advantages of church that drove attendance in decades past no longer exist. It just isn’t the case anymore that good citizens born here are expected to become good church members. Schools, work, neighbours, businesses, governments don’t do –  society-at-large doesn’t do – our evangelism for us anymore.

Church isn’t an expected social commitment any longer.

Yet, almost always when we speak of getting people to start coming back to church, we say it just like that – ‘back to church.’ And the issue goes deeper to than that. So often when I ask church members what reason keeps them coming to church, there is almost always one things at to the top of the list: Church feels like family, church is a community.

Churches should be communities where we feel connected to each other in deep ways.  But family and community are still social commitments at the end of the day.

Social Commitment

Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment. The core of churches have been based on the fact that people are expected to attend because of societal pressures. And when society taught us through family, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, TV, movies, newspapers, courthouses, and governments that being church attenders was important, churches organized around social commitment worked well.

These churches did good ministry, they reached people with the gospel and they were servant communities.

But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders, attracting people to a social commitment doesn’t work.

In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.

Our pitch for church has often become some version of “come to church because you should” or “come to church for your family” or “come to church for the community”

Yet, people are choosing sports or music or clubs or brunch with friends or sleeping in with family because they love those things. People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love. Social pressure doesn’t hold much sway anymore, even if our society did push church on people.

When you love soccer, finding a team to play on is also finding a community with a shared passion. When you love brunch, finding a brunch club means joining a community that shares your love of brunch. When you love lazy Sunday mornings with family, you have a community that also loves sleeping in.

But what is our shared loved at church? Are we just communities to join without a shared passion?

Commitment to Jesus

If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church.

As a millennial, I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.

My church going peers were interested in following Jesus.

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team.

Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

As churches try to understand why all the attempts to attract people back to church haven’t yield better results, I think it is because the core foundation that brings most church communities together is fundamentally at odds with what people who are looking for churches are seeking today.

If I had to guess, that if people are looking for church these days, they are doing it in the same way that someone would look for a soccer team. A soccer player looks for a team because they love soccer. A church seeker is looking for a church community because they love Jesus and want to follow him. They are not looking for a church because they love church.

And it goes deeper than that. If getting people to church is the chief concern, than we will always be looking to draw people in.

But if following Jesus, and letting people know about this gracious, merciful and compassionate God, is at our core, we will reach out. And reaching out to let people know about Jesus, may or may not include more bums in pews. Either way, building the church is not the goal, but at best is a symptom of reaching people with Jesus.

So how can churches address this? How can churches built on the social commitment to church have the conversation about the fact that the very thing that brings them together as a community is their biggest problem?

With a lot of soul-searching, a lot of questions, a lot of discerning and a lot of prayer. Changing our foundations and cores will not be easy. In fact, many churches will choose to die instead of changing to the core of following Jesus.

Despite the social commitment at the core of our churches, I think that many churches and church members do want to follow Jesus too. And it isn’t that a church has to choose between being a community or following Jesus. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But churches DO have to choose what is at their core. Churches need to choose the foundation that gathers their community.

Is it a social commitment to church?

Or are we followers of Jesus whose shared passion brings us together?


What is the core passion that brings your church together? How can churches change their core? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

5 Loaves on the Water

John 6:1-21

When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Usually, when preachers come across two stories jammed together into one Gospel reading, it is a disappointment. A disappointment, because you can really only focus on one story in a sermon. And so you have to choose. Today, that choice would be between the Feeding of the 5000 or Jesus walking on the water. A story about abundance in the midst of scarcity. Or a story of a miracle meant to show us who Jesus really is.

6 years ago, this story was the text for the fourth sermon I had preached after becoming a pastor. I chose to focus on the feeding of the 5000, and to tell a story of encouragement… that despite a seeming decline in what we seem to be in as churches, that there is abundance in the midst of scarcity. That God is able to with incredible things with just a little, with 5 loaves and two fish.

And this is most certainly true… and yet, the message of scarcity and abundance feels different today. Six years later, the challenges that churches like ours are facing across the country are much the same. They have been the same for a decade or two even. Yet, the longer we struggle with doing incredible things with 5 loaves and two fish, with doing more with less as churches… maybe we are missing the point.

Maybe that second part of today’s story is more significant than it seems.

 

The story of Jesus walking on the water speaks to us today at little more directly than the feeding of the 5000. Churches probably feel a little more adrift on the rolling and windy waves and less so like we are on the mountain top dealing with the nice problem of having too many people and not enough food.

These stories of ‘Feeding the 5000’ and ‘Jesus Walking on the Water’ are powerful images on their own, but there is something about them, when taken together, that speaks to our current circumstances.

Sure the disciples were afraid of the wind and the waves as they crossed the sea, but as we will hear more during the next 4 weeks, they were also just as confused by what had happened on the mountain with the 5 loaves and two fish.

And think about it. It isn’t just the crowds on the mountain, it isn’t just Jesus appearing on the water… it is the experience of going from mountaintop high to stormy waters threatening to drag us under. If there is any part of the story that we totally get, it’s that one. It is the experience of not knowing why all those people were drawn to the mountain top, and then being tossed into the storm before sorting out what 5 loaves and 2 fish really mean.

We have been talking about decline and change for years now… and still the need for us to face these issues has never seemed more urgent than today. And it will be even more urgent tomorrow.

Yet, most of us, maybe none of us, have really had the chance to understand where we have been. We haven’t had the chance to really reflect on why the crowds came to the mountain top. The story of Lutheran churches in the past 100 years has been one of small faithful, mostly rural communities planting small churches around 100 years ago, and then experiencing incredible growth about 50 years ago and today experiencing decline.

And that is why we understand the disciples’ predicament. We know what it is like to be on the mountain with the hungry but happy crowds. And we know what it is like to be on the stormy waters unsure of where we are going or what God is doing. But we really know what it is like to come tumbling down the hill only to land in a boat set adrift on stormy waters. This is the story of Lutherans in Canada.

 

As the wind blows the disciples across the sea, they were still struggling to understand what happened up on the mountain…  and then Jesus strolls by, walking on the water.

He strolls by and declares, “I AM. Do not be afraid.”

And if the disciples haven’t figured it out yet. And if we haven’t figured it out yet.

Jesus makes it plain.

Whatever miracle was happening on the mountain, it is here in the midst of the wind and the waves that the  real action is happening.

It is here on the water that the spirit of God hovers over creation. And to underscore that point, Jesus uses that name that God gives God-self when he is speaking to Moses in the burning bush. “I AM”.

The water is where the Great I Am, where the creator is bringing about something new. The water is where God created all things and brought life into being. The water is where God delivered Noah and his family, where God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom. The water is where Jesus was baptized by John.

And as we will be reminded as Deakyn is baptized today, the water is where God first meets us.

So being on the water with the wind of the spirit blowing our boat somewhere new is exactly where God wants us to be. The mountain top is just a pit stop for us, it is not the destination. Yes, the 5 loaves and two fish can feed 5000, but most of the time they are only needed to feed five. The point is that God is feeding us, it is not about how many God can feed. The food is just meant to keep us going on the journey. On our journey where God is leading us from water to water, from bath to bath.

Jesus comes to meet us on the water, because the water is where the action happens. The water is where God is creating something new. And as scary as the water is, as terrifying as the wind can be, as much as we want to go back as figure out the bread, fish and 5000 of the mountain top, God is dragging us down into the water, and God’s spirit is blowing towards something unknown, but something new.

And, it is here on the water, here in baptism, here in the very foundations of creation that God finds us. And it is here in the stormy waters of creation that God is steering us to something new, steering the whole church, the whole body of Christ, into new incredible new life.

Amen.